There have been numerous hints over the past year suggesting that the erosion of the majestic Roger Federer has unfortunately arrived. The first were rooted in success: He accomplished two of the three feats he craved in winning Wimbledon for a seventh time and regaining the world No. 1 ranking -- and holding it long enough to give him the record of 302 weeks. The only thing he didn't do was win a gold medal in singles at the London Olympics.
By standing at the top of Mount Everest, Federer conjured memories of the great Henry Aaron, who, in his furious pursuit of Babe Ruth's career home run record, hit an astounding 199 home runs between age 35 and 39. When he finally passed Ruth, he told himself he could still play. He said all the right things publicly, that he still had the desire, the hunger. The truth, he would admit only years later, was that he had lost that special motivation, the fuel to be great. He had climbed and surpassed all mountains, beaten all challengers, overcome all challenges. As much as Aaron loved the game, there was nothing else that gave him enough motivation to train and travel and fight at a high level. He had done it all.
The narrative surrounding Federer is similar. He is no longer the favorite at any major except for, perhaps, Wimbledon, where he is the defending champion. When he lost in Rotterdam to Julien Benneteau, it was the first time in three years he'd lost to a player who hadn't at some point been ranked in the top 10. Then, in Madrid, he did it again; this time to Kei Nishikori.
None of this evidence matters, however, except this: Federer said he would only play as long as he competed at the elite level. More than anything else, this is the red flag.
A year ago at Wimbledon, Andy Roddick shared similar sentiments, but used a different word. Roddick said he would continue as long as he felt he could play "relevant tennis." Within 60 days, he had announced his retirement.
The elegant Federer is beatable, not just by Novak Djokovic, Murray and Nadal, but in the past nine months, by del Potro, Tomas Berdych and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Tsonga not only beat Federer in the Roland Garros quarters for the first time since consecutive victories at Wimbledon and Montreal in 2011, but pushed him around the court convincingly.
The differences between Aaron, Roddick and Federer are obvious. When he broke the home run record, Aaron was no longer a great hitter, no longer a great player. He was 40 years old and looked it on the baseball diamond. Roddick had both dropped into the low 30s in the rankings and was ornery because he couldn't stay healthy enough to compete.
Federer, despite a sometimes nagging back, is healthy and is still the third-ranked player in the world. He is going to be a favorite to win at Wimbledon and still has a staggering streak of reaching 36 consecutive Grand Slam quarterfinals. The question for the greatest player of his generation, if not of all time, is this: At his altitude, what exactly constitutes "relevant" or "elite" tennis? Is it:
A) Having an opportunity to win every tournament he enters?
B) Being a favorite to reach the final of a Masters 1000 series event and the semifinals of a Grand Slam?
C) Having a chance to regain the top ranking?
D) Remaining in the top five?
E) Only losing to the top 6-7 players in the world?
Wimbledon will clearly answer some of these questions for Federer, but …
A) It is unrealistic. For Federer to win Grand Slam tournaments going forward, he will need help. Murray beat him on grass in the gold-medal match last year.
B) It's still very much in play. Yes, Federer lost in the quarters to Tsonga at Roland Garros and to Berdych in the quarters of the US Open; yes, his only finals of 2013 have been on clay in the Rome Masters and the grass of Halle. However, he did win three Masters 1000 tourneys last year. He beat Djokovic with surprising ease at Wimbledon and overcame Tsonga in five hard sets in the quarters at Melbourne.
C) Regaining the top spot is likely out of the question. Federer has reduced his schedule considerably and this year must defend 2000 Wimbledon points, 1000 points in Cincinnati and a quarterfinal appearance at the US Open. A revived Nadal, a dominant Djokovic and a healthy Murray make that difficult.
D) For all his elegance and flair and mastery of the game, Federer's toughness, focus and competitiveness are legendary. He rarely has bad days that cost him defeats, which explains the consecutive quarterfinal streak. The dips in focus that bury Tsonga, the spirals in confidence that trap Berdych, the injury fears and moodiness that handcuff del Potro do not seem to suffocate Federer. Thus, if he can handle being a top-five player who may not win majors, Federer has many years remaining.
E) Again, Federer lost to Benneteau and Nishikori this year, but before that hadn't lost to a such player, who hadn't previously been in the top 10 in their career, since 2010. The numbers say it best: If you're not a top player, you still don't beat Roger Federer.
The Federer question isn't whether he's still dangerous -- he could very well win Wimbledon again this year -- but how much contact he will have with mortals when the time comes to step away. The Federer game, and his feverishly loyal following, must simply accept less than perfection, the inclusion of more shanks of both wings, the wobbly moments that tell us, dreadfully, that time gets us all. In a way, Federer is nearing Bob Gibson territory. Gibson's last pitch in the big leagues was in 1975, a grand slam to Pete LaCock. In retirement, Gibson reflected on it, saying, "When you're giving up grand slams to Pete LaCock, it's time to walk away." Ouch, if you're Pete LaCock. But the point is well taken.