Don't write off Federer just yet
Roger Federer's straight sets capitulation to Tommy Robredo in the US Open last week was startling not only for the result, but the manner with which it was achieved.
Federer rained down error after error, failed to convert 14 break points and appeared to have lost confidence and belief.
The defeat punctuated a miserable two months for the Swiss, which included shock defeats to Sergiy Stakhovsky, Federico Delbonis and Daniel Brands - hardly household names in tennis. The inevitable obituaries followed, many urging the great man to retire before he tarnishes his legacy with ignominious defeats.
What we are seeing with Federer is two things. First, he demonstrates that there is so much to manage and perfect - ranging from tactics to equipment to health to mental and emotional control - that it is remarkable he has remained at the top for so long. However, nobody can avoid the physiological effects of aging.
Among the obvious is a loss of speed, a half second that is the difference between perfect footwork and being tangled, off-balanced and error-prone. We also lose vision and reaction time - visual acuity drops, as do reflexes and the time required to process hundreds of visual cues that Federer relies upon to judge pace, spin, angle and height of his opponent's balls.
Flexibility and strength also decline, and here too, small changes have meaningful implications for shot accuracy, speed and defensive ability. Compound these changes, and the result is that a 1% loss in five or six different areas is worth a great deal.
Psychologically, the changes are much more subtle and difficult to predict. There is a lesson from the women's tour about the demands of being a champion. Consider that in the last ten years, the women's No1 ranking has changed 34 times, and has been shared between 11 different women.
In other words, 11 women have earned an average of three separate stints of four months each atop the rankings.
Over the same period, the men's No1 ranking changed only 13 times, with seven men achieving the milestone. That's largely due to Federer, who spent a record 237 consecutive weeks at No1, followed by another short stint at the top last year.
It is the exception, not the norm, to sustain dominance for this period, and requires a special motivation, ability and drive to continue to dominate from the front. Managing expectation and pressure becomes more challenging than dealing with vicious topspin forehands, and so Federer's longevity is as remarkable for his mental resilience as it is his technical prowess.
The second issue for Federer is that in tennis, there is nowhere to hide. The margins between victory and defeat are minute, and once the effect of physiology and perhaps a slight loss of confidence are combined, the result is that he is exposed.
Football, rugby and cricket allow players to "manage" their slow decline and loss of form. David Beckham, for instance, was able to change not only his on-field role, but also his teams, to extend his career without losing value. Federer has no such luxury, and that was plain to see against Robredo.
As for the easily delivered advice to retire to save his legacy, I would argue that his legacy will always be Grand Slam titles won, and achievements such as his 36 consecutive Grand Slam quarterfinals. Besides, a loss of confidence can be overcome, and it was only a year ago that Federer was World No1.
It may be too early to write off the Swiss. Of course, the end will eventually come, but for now, it may be that Federer has merely changed into a "regular" elite athlete, prone to ups and downs. The future will reveal how high those "ups" may be.