We have been here before with Roger Federer, but this time it feels very different.
As the greatest Grand Slam champion of all-time bowed out of the 2018 US Open after a fourth-round 6-3, 5-7, 6-7 (7-9), 6-7 (3-7) defeat against John Millman, suggestions that this was one of the greatest shocks in tennis history were inevitably aired.
Yet this rapid fall from grace has been creeping up on the Swiss legend with unwanted haste in recent months and, while he has given no hints of what may be to come, 2019 looks increasingly likely to be the year that sees Federer make what will inevitably be a classy exit from the tennis stage he has dominated for so long.
Those of us who have had the privilege of sitting through numerous Federer press conferences down the years have often marvelled at his willingness to answer to the most ridiculous posers with a grace and charm that made them somehow seem credible.
Yet anyone who has dared to mention the ‘R word’ in a Federer press conference has been met with a steely stare and a dismissive comment. “Don’t even mention it’, is the response from the Swiss when retirement is floated, but that day has never seemed closer.
Quitting the sport is a threat Federer has been running away from since his back problems began to affect him five years ago, but his evasion may soon come to an end as, at the age of 37 and after one of the great comebacks that has seen him win three of the last seven Grand Slam titles, Federer suddenly looked like a giant entering the final lap of his incredible career.
“I don’t know, for some reason I just struggled in the conditions,” said Federer after the defeat against Millman, as he was left bemused by inability to raise his game to the levels he expects of himself.
“I couldn’t get air It’s one of the first times it’s happened to me. I guess sometimes I was just happy that the match was over, I guess.”
Never before has Federer suggested he was relieved to get off the court after a defeat and that is not the only reason why the inevitable sands time finally seems to be catching up with tennis’ special one.
The 10 double faults he tossed into his latest defeat followed a trend that has been evident in his game with increasing regularity in 2018, with the unfamiliar errors on his previously flawless forehand further evidence that his powers are waning.
His Australian Open win in January now seems like a distant fantasy and amid a 12-month period that has see him lose to David Goffin, Thanasi Kokkinakis, Borna Coric and now Millman, the chasm that has existed between Federer and the game’s lesser lights over the last 15 years appears to be evaporating.
“I’m probably in a bit of disbelief,” declared Millman after the stand-out win of his career. “I have so much respect for Roger and everything he’s done for the game, and he’s been a hero of mine. Today he was definitely not at his best, but I’ll take it.
“I’ll obviously remember this for a long, long time. I hope the people who are watching here and back home remember it, too. It’s extremely special. But hopefully I haven’t got a bullet in me yet, I can create a few more moments in my career.”
Federer confirmed he intends to finish 2018 on a high, but the dark moment when he declares he has hit his final ball in anger as a professional feels like it is approaching his alarming haste.
Tennis has been trying to discover how it will fill a Roger Federer sized hole for the last few years and, sadly, it seems they need to come up with a solution to that impossible riddle very soon.
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