Federer loss would disrupt tennis' world order

Though he's earned only two major titles in 2008, Federer is ready to show the world why he is the No. 1 player. Ian Walton/Getty Images

WIMBLEDON, England -- Mortality is universal. At some point, we must all face the abyss.

Last week, Novak Djokovic, the world's No. 3-ranked player, weighed in on Roger Federer's suddenly seemingly fragile hold on the No. 1 ranking. This in the wake of Federer's devastating loss to Rafael Nadal in the French Open final, in which he won only four games.

"Some things are changing," said Djokovic, who beat Federer in the semifinals of the Australian Open earlier this year. "I think he's a little bit shaken with that loss, and mentally he has been struggling in the last couple of months.

"New names are coming -- fresh, talented players who believe more they can win against him -- and I am one of them. Suddenly, he is a bit worried."

Federer, less than two months shy of his 27th birthday, stands on the precipice, contemplating his tennis mortality amid the excess of pansies, petunias and peonies here at the All England Club.

The Wimbledon fortnight that opens Monday could well represent the most important tournament of his career. A victory -- which, according to the treacherous draw, ultimately would come through Djokovic, then Nadal (who took him, memorably, to five sets in last year's final) -- would be his sixth straight at Wimbledon. Such a streak hasn't happened since William Renshaw rendered the mighty six-peat back in 1886. It would be Federer's 13th Grand Slam singles victory and would move him within whispering distance of Pete Sampras' standard of 14.

A loss would widely be viewed as catastrophic. Federer has won 34 consecutive matches here and 59 straight on grass, the surface that plays best to his multitude of strengths. Mononucleosis was blamed for his defeat in Australia, and the Paris loss was easily rationalized because it came on clay, Federer's worst surface and Nadal's favorite. But a loss here, now -- well, it would change the world order and recalibrate Federer's chase of Sampras.

This all-or-nothing proposition -- ecstasy or agony -- is the fine line upon which Federer will dance the next two weeks. On Sunday, he continued his brave mode of monotone optimism.

Worried? At least on this occasion, Federer seemed the very picture of confidence.

"I feel like I'm the big favorite, obviously," Federer said. "It's a huge year for me, going for my sixth. Getting the fifth one was a dream come true already. It's taken I don't know how many years to match [Bjorn] Borg's record. I hope I can also match Pete's record of seven Wimbledons here.

"What other people and players say I cannot control. But you'll always hear good things and bad things throughout your career. It's maybe a time where some people talk a little bit too much sometimes."

More than anything, this sounded like a shot back at Djokovic. Federer says he doesn't read the newspaper stories. But in his first interview here, one that on several occasions drifted into chippiness, he seemed very aware of the doubts that are circulating.

"I'm still pretty proud about achieving my third French Open final," he said at one point, "but for some, I guess that's still not good enough."

Borg, long reluctant to speak publicly, has come out of his media shell this past year and has shown a gift for punditry as his records have been approached in Paris and London. Last year, he was full of praise for Federer. This year, he told the British papers he favored both Nadal and Djokovic ahead of Federer for the title.

"That's how quickly things change," Federer said. "I mean, look, it's his opinion. I don't -- it doesn't affect me much."

Is he disappointed in Borg's analysis?

"Not disappointing, but it's just different," he said. "I'm surprised. Let's put it that way."

It is instructive that of five ESPN.com experts who picked the men's winner, only one chose Federer. This is not to say there aren't a few old-school Federer loyalists floating around the green grounds.

Peter Lundgren, who coached Federer from 2000 to 2003, insisted last week that his former charge was still the one to beat.

"Roger will be fine," Lundgren said from his hotel in Halle, Germany. "He lost to probably the best clay-court player in history."

Federer will get right to it on Monday, playing Dominik Hrbaty in the first match on Centre Court. The second and third rounds could produce potentially difficult matches with Robin Soderling and Gael Monfils.

On Sunday, Federer acknowledged he has cut back on his media appearances in recent weeks. This may be a response to the skeptics, or perhaps he's just tired.

"I mean, it's just more doing it for 10 years," Federer explained. "Sometimes you need a little bit of time.

"I felt like I was talking enough, you know? There's no more really to be said."

The time for doing is at hand.

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.