Roger Federer will head into Wimbledon surrounded with even more question marks after losing in the final of Halle to 34-year-old Tommy Haas last week. But the sight of an old friend and one of tennis' AARP members hoisting a trophy also had to be a boost for the 16-time Grand Slam champ as he looks to prolong his presence at the top of the game.
When Federer began facing retirement questions years ago, he came up with the neat trick of saying he planned to play until at least the London Games in 2012. That kept the inquiries at bay for a while, but they resumed as that date crept closer and closer -- it's now just weeks away -- leading Federer to start pointing toward Rio in 2016.
That will be a much harder sell. "It's a long way 'til then, obviously," said Federer in an interview this week with a prominent German newspaper. "But I would be 35 years old. And at that age, other players have had amazing performances. Look at Andre Agassi. He set a new standard."
If he's still going as Rio approaches, the next stage may be to dig further back in the history books and start citing the longevity of Jimmy Connors and Ken Rosewall.
But the question is not simply how long Federer can carry on. It's also whether he would be satisfied to continue playing just for the prospect of an occasional heartwarming victory like Haas' last week, or if he needs to be in serious contention at the majors for motivation. At the moment, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have established a stranglehold over the Grand Slams, winning the past nine and playing each other in a record four straight finals.
Few have matched Federer's love of the game, but how long will it stave off the dislike of defeat?
For now, he believes he's still well in the hunt.
"I feel like I'm at eye level with them," Federer said last week. "I'm not missing much to win a Grand Slam again. I know many doubt that. But I don't."
The quick, low-bouncing grass at Wimbledon offers one of the best opportunities for Federer to end his Grand Slam drought, but he will have to find that missing something. His recent play against rank-and-file opponents has been solid, but his attempts to lift his game to the next level have yielded patches of errors rather than the sustained brilliance usually required to defeat the likes of Nadal and Djokovic.
And they are not the only obstacles. There are now more players who, on a good day, can step up to the baseline and knock Federer back: Tomas Berdych, Juan Martin del Potro, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, with a new name joining the list every year or so. Milos Raonic, who has taken Federer to third-set tiebreakers in their past two meetings, looks like the latest. Fending them off will also require recapturing that little bit of magic from Federer.
In any case, the presence of the big two may make it easier for Federer to keep going, even as they make it harder for him to keep winning. Their tennis provides a continuing challenge, and their march on Federer's achievements is another reason for him not to rest on his laurels, though he insists that it does not keep him up at night. In the French Open final, Nadal was playing for a record seven French Open titles and 11 Grand Slams overall, while Djokovic was bidding to complete the non-calendar Slam that had twice eluded Federer and further sew up the No. 1 ranking.
"I see these matches like a fan and don't make them a personal matter," Federer told reporters last week. "It's just great for tennis to see how many great players we have at the same time, so I would not begrudge others the success because it would help me with the rankings."
And despite everything, Federer is closer to reclaiming the No. 1 spot than he has been in quite some time. Though it's been a long time since he had a statement win at a Slam -- last year's French Open semifinals, to be exact -- Federer has been piling up titles during quieter periods of the season and is practically neck and neck with Nadal in the rankings. He would take back the top ranking if he won Wimbledon by beating anyone other than Djokovic in the final.
Federer will have a long way to go to pull that off. But it's safe to say he's a lot closer to a title at the All England Club than he is to retirement.