Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Tennis [Print without images]

Wednesday, July 24, 2013
Updated: July 27, 7:08 AM ET
Better to be Federer than A-Rod

By Matt Wilansky
ESPN.com

At first, I felt for Roger Federer, well, for as much as anyone can sympathize with him. His switch to a larger racket only affirmed what he likely knew, and something we all had to start coming to terms with: That his career had finally come to a crossroads. In his past two tournaments, Federer suffered losses to players ranked outside of the top 100, an almost inconceivable set of events for the 17-time Grand Slam champion.

But the more I started thinking about it, the more I kept asking myself why this is such a shocking revelation. After all, and as hard as this is to stomach, the guy is allowed to age. He's allowed to lose a step or two and still be a salient part of the tennis circle. It's the downside to a natural career arc for any athlete. Federer, for his part, has clung to some pretty sweet living quarters atop the rankings far longer than any player who ever took a crack at this game. You could also make the case he will have far outlasted his contemporaries when they reach his age one day. Does anyone really foresee Rafael Nadal running around with those fragile knees at the age of 32? He might not make it to 30. Novak Djokovic has transformed himself into a fitness fanatic, but he hits with such abrasive torque that the probability of injury is pretty high, especially when you compare it to Federer's almost effortless technique.

Roger Federer
Roger Federer has only one minor tournament win this year, but hes working hard to find his form again.
And then there's this: Federer has no demons to confront as he tries to reimmerse himself in the Grand Slam title mix. He never has, as far as any outsider is aware. It's only about the game of tennis and the adjustments he needs to make to compete with his rivals. Imagine being Alex Rodriguez and, like Federer, on the downside of your career. But now imagine the mental toll it has to be taking on Rodriguez, knowing full well there are only a precious few moments remaining until the commissioner calls and delivers a career-altering blow. Can you imagine all that hanging over your head while you're trying to toil with technique and mend a struggling game?

So when you think about that, the view from the mountain top isn't too gloomy for Federer. The only thing weighing him down these days is adjusting to a new racket head that has mushroomed a few square inches from his previous model. Sure, it comes with its share of pesky challenges (i.e., more swing weight, less precision, etc.), but at least Federer can work on revamping his game with a clear conscience. In the end, his new hardware might help him, and it might not. He traveled to Hamburg last week to give his new stick a whirl, and he's playing another smaller-level tournament at the Suisse Open this week, neither of which was part of his itinerary when the season started. The poor fella, eh? But don't feel too bad for Federer. When August rolls around, he'll be playing meaningful events in Montreal, Cincinnati and then New York at the US Open in front of his thousands of adoring fans. Even if Fed loses in the first round, he'll still be a part of the pageantry. Where will Rodriguez be during the home stretch of the MLB season?

I completely get that, on many levels, comparing the plights of Rodriguez and Federer is silly and, perhaps, unfair. There's an inherent difference in the composition of their respective sports; they have different roots, and they run in different circles. The pressure that every player is under to succeed varies. But Major League Baseball's ongoing crackdown on performance-enhancing drugs and all the players who have or will have their fates severely affected by these massive suspensions puts what Federer is going through into perspective. He's dealing with only on-the-court issues.

No matter what comes of Federer and his recent slide and his new racket, he will at least get to leave on this own terms one day and likely get to enjoy a season-long farewell tour in which all those championship moments will be replayed over and over and over, probably to the point of exhaustion. Federer's new racket might help salvage his time alongside the game's elite, but even if it doesn't, don't pity him. There won't be any stains on a bio already overflowing with adulation and accomplishments. Federer's struggles against Nadal and his few other shortcomings won't ever be part of the narrative when it's time to talk about the lore he left behind.

What more could an athlete ask for? Rodriguez and a handful of other stars likely won't ever have any kind of meaningful send-off. And that's got to be pretty upsetting for any player, especially one with Hall of Fame credentials, whose career was interrupted by something he could have controlled.

Imagine if Alex Rodriguez's only concern was deciding which Louisville Slugger model would help him jack a few more home runs.