My Starting Point
I will put my bias out there and state that Roger Federer has been all-time my favorite tennis player to watch since 2003. I like his game, his balance, his shot making etc. I also will bluntly say that Roger is not playing near his career best 2006 level, or his 2004-2007 level, or his 2009 level and to this point not near his 2012 level. Roger has been off in some tournaments this season. Close losses to Andy Murray and Tomas Berdych are expected of a 31 year old. Some of his other stumbles have been uncharacteristic. Add in a reduced schedule and suddenly a tennis crisis emerges.
Roger Federer lost as defending champion in Madrid after skipping Monte Carlo and Miami. Peter Bodo among others pronounced that Federer was slipping and that even his safe haven of grass might come under assault. In reality, Federer has lost Halle finals to Lleyton Hewitt and Tommy Haas in recent years. He lost a two set lead to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at Wimbledon in 2011. He lost in straight sets to Andy Murray in the Olympic Gold Medal round in 2012. All of this happened on grass. Roger is not running a grass court streak like he had from 2003-Wimbledon 2008. Federer might lose a few matches on grass in 2013 and that does not mean he is finished anymore than his 2011 loss to Tsonga ended his hopes of winning Wimbledon again.
Similarly, if Roger has a nice event in Rome, it does not mean he is back to his 2009 clay court form. Today, Roger Federer beat Gilles Simon on clay. Federer was once 0-2 in his career matches vs. Simon. He wins 6-1, 6-2 on his worst surface against a man who has troubled him. Is Federer back (or is this a silly question) after being given last rites on his flight out of Madrid? One match or one event is just not smart for judging a veteran and legend of the game. Short term analysis will lead to Federer looking like a yo-yo.
Where Things Stand
The fact is that Roger Federer is 31 years old. He undoubtedly has nagging injuries like all players on tour, but his recovery time is likely slowing from what it once was. He is still ranked in the top 4, but to this point in 2013 is playing as though he is roughly the 6th best player on tour. Tommy Hass has won two titles in the past 52 weeks, upset the world number one, and made a serious run at a title in Miami. Federer is four years younger than Haas. Roger Federer is scheduling himself as though he is not terribly concerned about his ranking. This may be a mistake as his 2012 form seemed to benefit from playing with greater frequency than he had in 2010 or 2011. Then again the benefit of being ranked in the top four only materializes if the other three players do the same. Federer learned that Nadal is just as deadly in the quarterfinal round as he is during the final weekend of an event.
Nevertheless, Federer seems to be aiming toward being physically at his best heading into the biggest prizes in tennis. This may or may not result in an 18th Grand Slam title, but I would not doubt the method too much. Roger Federer is not the force of nature that he once was on tour. He is still a player capable of winning big matches. Federer will need circumstances to break his way more than he once did, but so long as his hunger to win big titles is still there he will be relevant in 2013. His coach Paul Annacone saw Pete Sampras win Wimbledon in 2000 when his draw opened up enough to reach a championship match on a bad leg.* Sampras also won the 2002 US Open as the 17th seed. A lot had to go right for Sampras to win those two events, but he was hungry enough to take advantage of the opportunities that did eventually present themselves. Undoubtedly, Annacone is preaching the same message to Federer who is not yet taking on water to the degree that Sampras was in 2002. With Nole and Nadal playing so well, it is not as easy to see a draw breaking wide open for Federer, but to say eulogize his career is just giving into sensationalism.
* Gimelstob, Bjorkman, Gambill and Voltchkov were not a murderers row of opponents.
** This sense of overreaction is not limited to Federer. Nole left Dubai with some wondering if he would duplicate his record setting start to 2011 and post his best year ever. After Indian Wells and Miami, some felt Djokovic looked worn out. He then wins Monte Carlo by beating Nadal and a calendar Grand Slam is discussed. Then he loses to Dimitrov in Madrid. Is Nole clearly #1 or slipping? Hyperbole is the name of the game for analysts these days.