Roger Federer facing questions again

Other players go through slumps. For Roger Federer, at 31, it's called decline.

Almost every loss brings on the cries, which have been particularly loud of late -- understandably so. By any name, his season has been disappointing -- six events, no titles and his first final just a week ago at the BNL D'Italia Masters in Rome, which ended in a drubbing by Rafael Nadal.

Unlike his matches with Nadal, Federer has taken the writing off in his stride. He's been through this before.

"I understand that everyone wants to be the first," he said last week in Rome, and not for the first time. He recalled the critics circling the year before: "I was surprised how early it was, straight after the French Open."

That was even though his results had been impressive compared with this year -- winning the Madrid Masters just a few weeks earlier and scooping up a number of titles on indoor and outdoor hard courts in the previous six months.

And then he won Wimbledon, resetting the meter.

But he knew it would begin again, just as it had after the 2010 Australian Open, his most recent Slam win until that Wimbledon title. "It didn't happen the day after I won Australia," he said shortly after lifting the trophy at the All England Club. "Right then, things were great. Like they will be tomorrow. Then the day after, they are going to go, 'When is he going to retire, again?'"

Still, it all pales beside the reaction to the Great Crisis of 2008, which began with the mono-affected struggles early in the year, then escalated with the loss to Nadal in their epic Wimbledon final. Just more than two months later, however, he was back in the winner's circle at the US Open, although any effect was largely undone by another defeat to Nadal at the Australian Open the next year. It was completing the career Grand Slam and tying the Grand Slam record at the 2009 French Open that, from Federer's perspective, really changed the conversation.

"Things are much more easy now in the press room. They're at peace, even though I understand everyone wants to be the first to have mentioned it or said it first that, 'OK, this is the decline,'" he said.

That watershed Wimbledon in 2008 soon came to be seen not as decline but as the end of domination. Since then, Federer has won five Grand Slam events -- one fewer than Nadal and Novak Djokovic. Ask the players about Federer's fading powers and they will roll their eyes. We should all decline like that, is the rueful response.

So where is he now? Simply asking the question means something.

"I also said that I think this is just a temporary thing. That maybe down the stretch, like with [Andre] Agassi I guess in some ways, you'll be happy that I'm still playing a few years from now," Federer said.

Things are not quite there yet because Federer remains a presence at the top. What is different, and has been different for a while now, is that, to win big titles, he has to not only play well but also usually get a little assistance -- a good draw, an upset here or there, or a bad moment or two from a tough opponent.

Vulnerability has emerged. In terms of his game, the mix has changed slightly. His movement might not be quite the same, for example, but his backhand has improved, and although his power stands out less in today's field, the variety stands out more. In good form, his tennis is still highly effective. Even in Sunday's one-sided encounter against Nadal on clay, the most difficult matchup of all, there were moments of brilliance. The problem was that there were many more moments that ended with an error. His loss against Kei Nishikori in Madrid the week before was similarly error-prone, so consistency is a question going forward.

The other area, which perhaps affects the first, is physical. He has become famous for his ability to remain injury-free, but Federer seems to be having back troubles with more frequency -- at least three times in the first half of last year and again earlier this year. He says he has been healthy in his past two events, and he did not look hampered during his matches. His serve has sometimes been muted, but he is generally much improved from before the break.

Even without those, there is the question of how much matches take out of him physically. Recovery becomes harder for players later in their careers. Predictably, that is not something Federer is eager to discuss, but there are indications by the way he sometimes looks and moves in the second half of tournament weeks, on and off the court.

The biggest sign is the way he has pared back his schedule this year, playing no events going into the Australian Open, cutting out Miami and taking a seven-week break leading into the clay season.

With his play and results all over the map, it's hard to know what to expect for the French Open. In 2011, he showed up and played beautifully, memorably knocking out Djokovic and reaching the final. Last year, he was scratchy from the get-go and was lucky to get as far as the semifinals, then fell to Djokovic fairly easily despite playing slightly better than he had going into the match.

Because of all the glaring losses to Nadal, it often goes unnoticed that Federer's results on clay are otherwise as good as they are anywhere else. And apart from Nadal, the clay season has not been particularly strong for the other big names, either. Djokovic won Monte Carlo but took notable losses at Madrid and Rome; Murray's participation is a question mark because of a bad back; David Ferrer's psychological state is unknown after two brutal defeats to Nadal; Juan Martin del Potro has been practically invisible; and Tomas Berdych and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga have not distinguished themselves. Another Swiss, Stanislas Wawrinka, has been impressive, as have a few younger players, but they remain unproven at the Grand Slam level.

That makes Federer's prospects look more respectable. But, as Rome showed, at his current level, he also can be threatened by up-and-coming talents and could use a decent draw if he wants to go deep.

"I am playing well and I am healthy, so I have everything to play for next week," said Federer, who is planning to begin practicing in Paris on Wednesday.

The one thing he can count on is crowd support. French-speaking Federer is wildly popular in France -- even getting at least equal cheers when he has faced hometown player Gael Monfils, which he has done three times at Roland Garros.

The watch will again be on to see just where Federer is in his career arc, but -- as the crowd has already figured out -- wherever that is, it's better just to watch him play.