SHANGHAI -- Even being one of the greatest athletes in the history of sports comes with its downside.
That's exactly the career crossroads where we find 32-year-old Roger Federer, 17-time Grand Slam champion and former No. 1, these days. Another example that the Federer today isn't the Federer of yesteryear came Thursday at the Shanghai Rolex Masters. Although Federer pushed the talented but quirky Gael Monfils to three sets in their round-of-16 encounter, the great one never looked comfortable, losing 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-3 to the Frenchman.
This season has left Federer in somewhat of a tailspin, one that started at his beloved Wimbledon, where he was upset by Sergiy Stakhovsky, ending Federer's towering record of 36 consecutive Grand Slam quarterfinals. Mind you, Federer was the defending champion and a seven-time winner.
Yes, Federer might be the oldest player ranked in the top 10, coming in this week at No. 7, but that's hardly a consolation for a guy used to hanging around among the top three in the world. When he fell to No. 5 on July 8, it was the first time he was ranked that low since he was No. 5 on June 23, 2003.
Federer has added only one trophy this season to his custom-built room that houses hardware from his 77 singles titles. That came on the grass of Halle, Germany, right before Wimbledon.
Surprisingly, Federer insists he isn't shocked about how his year has gone: "I always knew that this year, after a very tough year in 2012, the Olympics, was going to be a bit of a quiet year. I expected myself probably not to be as successful and as busy playing matches and tournaments."
True or not, fostering the notion he anticipated a down 2013 only implies he's expecting to return to his old self in 2014. Federer's plan was to bolster his confidence with a strong close to this season. Obviously, the early defeat in Shanghai didn't do much to back up that assertion.
Against Monfils, Federer surrendered the first set by losing his serve in the opening game. He fell behind a service break in the second set but recouped to just edge out Monfils in a tiebreaker. And in the third set, Federer sailed a forehand long in the six-minute, 53-second fifth game to surrender his serve again. That's all that Monfils needed. Once noted for the accuracy of his serve, Federer only hit three aces to 15 for Monfils. Federer was broken three times in 10 break points he faced.
"I'm not going to get too down on myself," Federer said. "It wasn't the perfect match. I knew it was going to be tough. So just going to move along. I can still finish strong. I believe that. There's not much time left. But if I do qualify for London [the ATP year-end Masters], that gives me an extra shot there. I usually play well indoors."
Federer's slump raises an integral question: Is he accepting that he might no longer be the player he once was? Or is he burying his head in the sand to avoid the truth?
Occasionally he delivers a realistic assessment. He noted that the past few months have been "a rocky patch." But more often than not, he's spinning the defiant, hopeful version that he's still the same old Roger, capable of greatness on a frequent basis.
"My mindset now is, OK, next year is going to be a great year again where I'm not going to have that many points to defend, especially at some very key moments where I consider myself a favorite," Federer said earlier in the week. "For that reason, I'm really looking forward to 2014 already. … As long as I'm physically and mentally fine, there's no reason for me not to be taking part in the big matches. That's what I'm looking forward to in 2014, to be part of those matches."
Federer appears happy wearing his rose-tinted glasses, but other important figures around the game are viewing the situation more clearly. They believe it's time to hold Federer to a less stringent standard. The days of consistently capturing Grand Slams -- or other tour titles -- are most likely behind him.
The great Australian Rod Laver, the only man to ever win the calendar Grand Slam twice (1962 and 1969), knows what it is like to feel greatness wane away. Visiting China for the first time this week at the Shanghai tournament, he discussed Federer's current position.
"The only thing I can say is sometimes when you get to be in your 30s, 30 to 35, somewhere in there, in my game, I played a match the day before, I played a terrific match, played 100 percent, as good as I was [when I was 21]," Laver said. "The next day, I go out and there's nothing there. So what is it? Is it the desire? Is it your emotion? Is your adrenaline not flowing as well as it normally does in a match? That's the times I found a problem. I don't know whether Roger's feeling anything of that nature. But sometimes I notice him; he just doesn't have it that day. But the day before he was magnificent."
Novak Djokovic also weighed in on the state of Federer.
"By his standards, definitely he hasn't been playing well this year," Djokovic said. "But also he hasn't been playing too many tournaments. I'm sure that he's going to tell you better what he feels, what are his priorities at this moment. … But still he's a top-eight player in the world. He's always dangerous. To play against him on any surface is always very unpredictable really. If he's on that day, if he feels well, I mean, we all know what he's capable of."
The bottom line is there's no denying Federer's achievements are of historic proportion. No man has done what he has done in the game starting with those record 17 Grand Slam trophies. Federer, as Laver alluded to, can show off what makes him one of the greats, but future expectations need to be dialed back.