PARIS -- Before Sunday, he had advanced to a record 35 consecutive Grand Slam quarterfinals, a staggering achievement. But along the way, Roger Federer has been increasingly fragile.
After a dizzying and unprecedented run in which he won 16 Grand Slam singles titles in a span of 27 opportunities, his last 12 majors have yielded only one championship: last year at Wimbledon. More often, the semifinals and the quarterfinals have been the final resting place for the 31-year-old.
Facing FrenchmanGilles Simon in a fourth-round match, Federer won six of the first seven games and seemed destined to add to his quarterfinal record. But Simon, buoyed by a desperately hopeful French crowd on Court Philippe Chatrier, nearly found a way to do something no one has done for nearly nine years.
But he didn't.
The proud Swiss champion overcame a one-set deficit and ultimately prevailed -- survived might be a better word -- 6-1, 4-6, 2-6, 6-2, 6-3. The unbearably taut match went 2 hours, 58 minutes.
"I guess this is maybe a record I look back on when I'm not playing anymore, and go like, 'That was incredible that I was able to achieve this.,'" Federer said. "Because this isn't just a one-week thing or one-year thing. This is such a long period of time that I had to fight through matches like the one, for instance, here today.
The number is unbelievable. I probably would have been happy with one at one point in my career, when I was younger. It's been an amazing run, and I'm happy I'm still on it."
Federer will play another Frenchman in the quarterfinals, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, on Tuesday.
Only one man in the history of tennis amassed more than Federer's total of 40 major quarterfinals. Jimmy Connors reached the elite eight no fewer than 41 times. He might be the only man to fully comprehend what Federer has achieved.
Last month, Connors visited the ESPN campus in Bristol, Conn., in support of his newly published memoir. When he was asked if he saw Federer's quarterfinal streak ending anytime soon, Connors sighed.
"That's what happens when you get old," Connors said. "It's a young man's game, but you're there to fight that off. If you're in it to play, then play. Fight it off as long as you can. Do what it takes to stay on top, or as close to the top as you can be. Give yourself an opportunity to sneak in there and maybe win another Grand Slam."
And then Connors still-youthful face crinkled into a grimace and he sighed again.
"Everything comes to an end," he said emphatically. "Always."
That day will have to wait for at least another month, when the ATP World Tour's players convene at the All England Club. For now, we can all revel in Federer's lengthy list of accomplishments.
The No. 2-seeded Federer has now:
• Reached the quarterfinals in 36 consecutive Grand Slams. This is a number even more staggering than you might think, for Connors' total of 41 was achieved across his entire 23-year career.
• Advanced to the elite eight for nine years running; only five other active players have even played in each of the past 36 Grand Slams.
As the match began to unfold, it certainly didn't appear Federer would be tested. He cruised in the opening set, but then Simon started giving him some unexpected push-back.
Federer was, as always, exceedingly patient. He endured several wonderful shots from Simon and, of course, the wild cheers of the French crowd. It is worth noting that when Federer found himself behind, the fickle French crowd started pulling for him. When Simon was trying to scratch out a break at the end, they reverted to form.
But after an uncharacteristically sloppy backhand found the net and produced yet another deuce, Federer finally kicked into all-time-great mode. He was already beyond the doubles alley when he scorched a forehand -- which curved gracefully around the net post -- for a winner.
The spectators gasped and, well, Simon was probably impressed, too. On the next point, the sixth set point for Federer, Simon sent a weak forehand into the net.
Over the years, Federer has made this kind of subtle grace such a habit that we almost don't process it anymore. But then, Federer faded and Simon rallied to win the next two sets. The key game of the match was the second of the fifth set; Federer broke Simon when a forehand skittered long and raced out to an uncatchable 3-0 lead.
Still, he struggled mightily to close it out. Federer served for the match at 5-3 and weathered numerous mistakes before a backhand from Simon was wide.
A little more perspective: The last time Federer failed to reach the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam was right here. He lost to three-time champion Gustavo Kuerten, the No. 1 seed, in the 2004 third round.
When you're three months from your 32nd birthday, there will always be questions about losing a step in professional sports. Federer hasn't won a tournament since last summer in Cincinnati, but there were concerns last year he would never win another Grand Slam, and he came through with his 17th major championship at Wimbledon.
"It's hard to comprehend that streak or even put it into words," said Darren Cahill, who coached both Lleyton Hewitt and Andre Agassi to the No. 1 ranking, and is working this French Open as an ESPN analyst. "You need a lot of things to go right. Mostly you need talent and an off-the-court regimen that allows your bodies to withstand the rigors of five-set tennis. "The big thing for Roger is his speed around the court. We went through this with Andre, when he lost a half-step, your shot selection changes, your approach changes because you get pushed outside your comfort zone."
Safe to say, Federer is living outside that cocoon that sustained the world's best player from 2004 to '09. Even so, he has managed to get by. If he beats Tsonga (and he's done that nine of 12 times), he'll record his 59th victory at Roland Garros, the most of all time -- surpassing both Vilas and Nicola Pietrangeli by one.
"It's maybe gotten more intense in the last five years," Federer said. "When I had mononucleosis, you have a bit of a bad back, and then you become even more and more careful. Had kids.
So all these things make you reconsider all your decisions. At the end of the day, most of my decisions are based on [longevity], because I'd like to stay in the game for as long as I can, or at least I gave myself the best possible opportunity. Yeah, so we'll see how it goes."
This was a back-to-the-future win for Federer. Nearly 15 years ago, he won his first ATP-level match -- against another Frenchman, on French soil. Federer beat Guillaume Raoux 6-2, 6-2 in the first round at Tolouse.
Yes, good things come to an end. Always. But, as Juba said to his dying friend Maximus toward the end of the movie "Gladiator," "Not yet. Not yet."