As Roger Federer digests his US Open disappointment, Kevin Palmer wonders whether he is now destined to fall short of his ultimate ambition.
Roger Federer cut a disconsolate figure as his latest attempt to win Grand Slam title No.21 came to a shuddering halt at the US Open on Tuesday night, as he may have concluded one of his last great ambitions is now beyond him.
With Novak Djokovic already out of the tournament and tennis fans around the world licking their lips at the prospect of Federer locking horns once with Rafael Nadal in Sunday’s final, an audible sound of despair echoed Arthur Ashe Stadium court as the final point played out and the ashen-faced loser made his way to the net to congratulate his shocked slayer.
After the brilliance of Federer’s display against David Goffin in the previous round, few saw this setback coming, and yet these final few chapters in the story of the most adored tennis player of all-time are becoming painfully familiar for an army of admirers willing their man on to one last snapshot of glory.
“An opportunity missed,” is how Federer summed up his deflating five-set defeat against Grigor Dimitrov on a night when his body let him down once more in pursuit of more greatness and, inevitably, the manner of the defeat will raise fresh questions about the 38-year-old’s ability to add to his haul of major titles.
While Federer’s legacy as the most popular tennis player in tennis history has long-since been secure, he wants more than adulation from a career that looks set to finish with him being listed as the third best player of that truly golden era that none of us want to end.
Yet, as 2019 ends without Federer winning a Grand Slam crown, do we have to ask whether we have seen him lift the last of the five-set titles that are stretching his body to the limit over two arduous weeks?
The answer to that question should remain unanswered, because recent evidence confirms this enduring champion still has enough brilliance inside his aching limbs to challenge for the titles he wants more than any other.
He proved as much last July at Wimbledon, when he had a mid-court forehand that should have been the final shot of his epic final against Djokovic, yet he lacked the conviction to punch that ball away from his opponent and now we wonder whether that was his final shot of major glory.
A combination of shrewd tournament scheduling and enduring brilliance have allowed Federer to defy the ageing process in recent years, but it is now a struggle for him to keep his working parts intact through the two-week marathon that is a Grand Slam event.
His old foe Nadal is likely to move to within one of Federer’s Grand Slam record if he can lift his 19th major on Sunday, and with the French Open almost certain to be claimed by Nadal again next year if he remains injury free, the ultimate record in tennis is now slipping through Roger’s fingers.
Djokovic may well break through the 25 major titles barrier if he remains fit over the next four years and if Nadal continues to play for a similar period of time, the Spaniard will almost certainly join him in that club, leaving many to conclude they are the greatest players of all-time – not the legend they have dueled with throughout their careers.
Federer fans will shudder at the prospect of their man being demoted to bronze medal position when we finally rank the ‘Big Three’, yet they should not despair that this is the end of their idol just yet.
Federer has appeared to be super-human time and again over the last 15 years, but kryptonite appears to be seeping into his pores now, as it is has become evidence that a jigsaw with many more pieces will need to fit into place for Federer to add to his haul of titles.
As he proved at Wimbledon this year, those pieces could still be slotted together if circumstances collide in his favour, yet his hopes of winning the race to seal top spot in the Grand Slam charts now appears to be forlorn.
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