The reality of Roger Federer's future

Judging from the events in recent days at the Madrid Masters, one of the main themes of the next two months -- the most intense two-month period in any year in tennis -- will be: Is Roger Federer finished as a force at the top of the game?

Federer, the beloved all-time Grand Slam singles title champ, has won just one Grand Slam singles title in his past 12 tries (contrast that to the three-year period starting in January 2004, when he won nine of the 13 majors he played). He'll be trying to defend that most recent triumph at Wimbledon. Given his outstanding record at that most prestigious of events (he's won seven of the past 10 tournaments there), Wimbledon may represent his last best chance to remain in the mix at the very top of the game.

It had to come to this. It always does, and it will come to this for Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros someday and for Novak Djokovic in Melbourne someday. Once again, Federer is a kind of trailblazer. He's foreshadowing the end of the era in which the main theme has been, can anyone beat Federer on a Slam-in, Slam-out basis?

Thursday in Madrid, a tough if not imaginative Kei Nishikori eliminated Federer in the third round. Nishikori may be a counterpunching baseliner, but his record on clay has been woeful. The only top-40 player he'd ever previously beaten on clay was Mardy Fish, and that was years ago in Houston. And nobody ever accused Fish of being a tough out on clay. Now, Nishikori has a win over Federer, too.

You could put Federer's loss down to rust; after all, he's been MIA for about two months, relaxing and preparing for the summer slog. But the surprising element in the match with Nishikori was the way Federer just faded away after he evened the match at a set apiece with a masterful 6-1, 32-minute blitz. This time, Federer was unable to keep the stick in fifth gear. He played a pair of terrible back-to-back games from 1-1 in the third set to fall behind 3-1. It was a deficit from which he never recovered. The only accurate word for the way he lost is "meekly."

Now keep in mind that this is the same Roger Federer who was 34-6 with three titles in Madrid (on both hard courts as well as the clay that became the surface in 2009), and was the defending champion. He won the title last year on that infamous "Smurf" blue clay, but thanks partly to the altitude in Madrid, he's had plenty of luck on the traditional red stuff, too.

Madrid has been one of Federer's best events. He reached the quarterfinals in his first try in Madrid (on a hard court in 2002) and he had been in the semis or finals every year since. The titles he won in Madrid include a welcome mastery of his clay-court nemesis, Rafael Nadal (2009).

You have to wonder, is this third-round loss a harbinger?

On the positive side, you can always fall back on the theory that Federer couldn't care less about his results in tour events. What does he have left to prove, or gain? Perhaps he decided to play the Madrid and Rome Masters mainly to tune up his game for one of the few things he does still care about -- the upcoming Grand Slam in Paris. And, of course, his title defense at Wimbledon.

One inconvenient truth about Federer's situation is that while he qualifies for exemption from Masters events by all three criteria (he's over 31, he has logged 12 years of active duty and he has won more than 600 matches), his ranking is going to head south if he doesn't play and win matches. He needs those W's in order to retain a high ranking and a high seeding in upcoming events. The last thing Federer wants is to meet Nadal or Djokovic in the third or fourth round of a major. I imagine the younger champs share that feeling.

Federer didn't get one of those valuable W's on Thursday, and he'll probably find them tougher and tougher to secure as time goes on. It's a cruel aspect of the sport, but also a natural one. It's going to be an interesting two months for the most successful champion the sport has ever produced.