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This is how time relentlessly erodes expectation: Seven-time Wimbledon champion Roger Federer said he felt more pressure playing in Germany this past week than when he stepped onto the lush lawns of the All England Club.
"It's an interesting period because I have my title to defend here, and at Wimbledon I don't have anything to defend," Federer said before the Halle event. "But I have to prove myself somehow. So actually it's the wrong way around for me. Usually the pressure in Wimbledon is much bigger because of the points and because you want to play well. But this year, I might go to Wimbledon a bit more relaxed."
|Beating Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic is a big ask, but on grass, Roger Federer has a shot.|
The man many among the tennis intelligentsia feel is the greatest player of all time is sweating a little ATP World Tour 250 event on grass? Consider that it was the only tournament he won last year and -- he needn't have worried -- again this year with a victory over Alejandro Falla in the final. That's the through-the-looking-glass world in which the 32-year-old father of four lives these days.
Federer has won 17 Grand Slam singles titles, but there is a growing feeling that he might be done. However, this edition of Wimbledon, which opens Monday, represents Federer's best chance to add to that number, according to a broad consensus of experts canvassed at the French Open.
Grass, for a variety of reasons, is his favorite surface and the one that rewards his many talents more than any other. With his 33rd birthday looming only seven weeks away, the window is closing. But has that ship sailed?
Two weeks ago, analysts Brad Gilbert and Mary Joe Fernandez sat in ESPN's production office at Roland Garros and watched the women's French Open semifinal between eventual champion Maria Sharapova and Eugenie Bouchard. The network had already wrapped up its coverage, and the atmosphere was relaxed. Gilbert, the former coach of Andre Agassi, Andy Roddick and Andy Murray, and Fernandez, the U.S. Fed Cup coach and doubles winner with Lindsay Davenport earlier in the day, discussed Federer's chances.
"The window is closing, but it's not shut," said Fernandez, who is married to Tony Godsick, Federer's agent. "Of course, he had the dream draw last year and lost to [Sergiy] Stakhovsky in the second round."
Gilbert thinks age is overrated. Federer, he pointed out, was challenged by a 35-year-old Agassi in the 2005 US Open final.
"It was a tough match," Gilbert said. "I'll bet he hasn't forgotten that. And Fed is in way better shape than Andre was. I would say for Roger to win Wimbledon, he needs a little bit of help. It's not impossible, but beating Rafa and Djoker in the semis and finals is a big, big ask. If Rafa loses early again -- like he has a few times -- and he's in Roger's section, then all of a sudden I could see it a little more clearly."
Although Federer is the second most successful clay-court player of his generation, he has only one Roland Garros title. This year, he was knocked out in the fourth round by eventual semifinalist Ernests Gulbis.
"Mentally, I have already switched to the grass, to be quite honest," Federer said in his press conference after that match. "For me, it's like, 'OK, clay-court season was fun, but we are moving on.' Clay doesn't need me anymore -- I got flushed out here."
The greatest on grass
With the swift passage of time, it's easy to forget that Federer himself was once an ambitious, terribly talented prodigy -- like some of the young players who are itching to bring him down today.
His first two Wimbledons were one-and-dones at the age of 17 and 18, respectively. And then, in 2001, the 19-year-old Federer produced some modest magic and beat Christophe Rochus and Xavier Malisse of Belgium and Sweden's Jonas Bjorkman to reach the fourth round. His opponent there, Pete Sampras, had won seven of the previous eight titles at the All England Club.
Federer stroked 25 aces -- one fewer than the legendary, hard-serving American -- and saved nine of 11 break points. He only broke Sampras three times, but it was enough in a coming-of-age five-set match. At the time, it was a revelation.
Now we know Federer is the greatest of the Open era's grass-court players. He has gone championship green 14 times -- seven at Wimbledon and seven in Halle. His record of 125-18 (.874) is easily the best among his few generational peers.
After losing to Gulbis in Paris, Federer and his family went back to Switzerland, where he did some physical training focusing on his back. Five days after his French exit, Federer was hitting on the grass courts at Halle.
"The first time wasn't that easy," Federer said. "I enjoyed it, but I didn't have the feeling that I played that well. [On Sunday] things went better. I do have the feeling that I've found my rhythm. You need to be sharp and make quick decisions because there isn't a lot of time. You need to adapt properly and be creative. You need to be more explosive, sharper -- that's very important on grass."
Watching Federer play on grass is a joy; it's not unlike the athletic-yet-balletic quality of a deer running in the forest. There is a feline quality to his sure-footedness.
"He's so comfortable moving on grass," Fernandez said. "Djokovic, you can see him getting stuck and slipping. Federer just glides."
Gilbert concurred. "He gets more 1-2s than any player I've ever seen on grass: Serve, first-ball winner," he said. "Pete [Sampras] would serve and volley, but Fed's placement is unreal."
|Thirteen years ago, Roger Federer's assault on the grass officially began with a five-set win over Pete Sampras.|
Federer's vital numbers on grass support this thought. His percentage of service games won (92) and break points saved (71) are four percent better than his overall career numbers. That might not seem like a significant margin, but in elite tennis it can be the difference between winning and losing.
Last year, after 10 consecutive trips to at least the quarterfinals at Wimbledon, Federer was stunned by the player ranked No. 116 in the world.
"Stakhovsky, that was a shock because I knew the danger, but I did not expect to lose in Wimbledon in the second round after so many years," Federer said in Paris. "Things are going to change with the grass season. Usually one plays well on grass because one has to do so much on clay to put pressure on the ball that it's necessary to hit hard. When you move on the quick ground, it's difficult to take the speed from the opponent. On clay it's different, and that's probably the reason I play rather well on grass after the clay season."
To win his most recent Wimbledon title, in 2012, Federer beat Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray in the semifinals and final. At the time, it seemed like the natural order of things.
Federer had reached the French Open final the year before and won the Australian Open the year before that. In retrospect, it looks like the path that Pete Sampras traveled. Sampras was one month past his 31st birthday when he won his final major, the 2002 US Open. Federer won that seventh Wimbledon title one month before his 31st birthday.
Golf and tennis are similarly individual sports, but the physical demands of tennis send most players to the sidelines in their early to mid-30s. One of the storylines at this year's U.S. Open at Pinehurst concerned the waning chances of once-major player Phil Mickelson. Fifteen years after he memorably dueled with Payne Stewart at the same venue and learned the pain of finishing second for the first of six times, Mickelson was well past his prime. He did not contend for the title -- not even close. Now 44, will Mickelson have another legitimate to win a major championship?
|Roger Federer has lost before the quarterfinals in three of his past four majors.|
How about Tiger Woods? When he won his latest major at the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, he was 32 -- the same age Federer is now.
Since winning his 17th Grand Slam singles title, here's what Federer has done in the majors: 2012 US Open quarterfinal (defeated by Tomas Berdych), 2013 Australian Open semifinal (Murray), 2013 French Open quarterfinal (Jo Wilfried-Tsonga), 2013 Wimbledon second round (Stakhovsky), 2013 US Open fourth round (Tommy Robredo), 2014 Australian Open semifinal (Rafael Nadal) and 2014 French Open fourth round (Gulbis).
It's worth noting that three of his past four major appearances have ended in the fourth round or earlier. And that Federer has been beaten by seven different players -- none of them named Djokovic.
His forehand, once the signature shot of his profession, is less reliable now. So is his nerve in the few moments that matter. He has, by most accounts, lost about a half-step in quickness.
This will be Federer's 59th consecutive major appearance, another Open era record. And though he insisted that he's going in relaxed, there might be a new sense of urgency.
Nadal's win at the French Open was his 14th Grand Slam singles title, which matched Sampras' second best total of the Open era. It could have been 15 if Nadal had managed to beat Stan Wawrinka in this year's Australian Open final. Can Federer possibly squeeze out one more title to create a little space between him and the 28-year-old Spaniard?
"I think when I'm healthy -- like I have been now for the last six to nine months -- I think clearly [and] I can also decide the outcome of the matches more than I could last year," Federer said in Paris. "So I'm very excited about my chances for Wimbledon this time."