Roger Federer gets cranky whenever retirement talk pops up, but that won't stop fans at next week's U.S. Open from wondering if they are catching their final glimpse of a tennis great.
Federer's reluctance to talk about how, when, where and even why he will walk away from tennis has only intensified speculation on the topic, with his every move analyzed for secret meaning.
Despite 17 Grand Slam titles to his name and a spot among the all-time greats long since secured, Federer has dipped far enough in the rankings to be seeded No. 7 in New York, his lowest placement in a major in more than a decade.
"He's 32," seven-time Grand Slam champion John McEnroe told Reuters. "He's going to have to, at some stage, decide how bad he wants it if he does dip lower in the world. I doubt he'll enjoy being in that spot."
It is indeed hard to imagine Federer being content with turning into just another top-10 player, given the extent of his routine dominance in his prime.
From a viewing perspective, seeing a graying (metaphorically) Federer tussle it out with emerging youngsters such as Milos Raonic and Jerzy Janowicz as they seek to make their push for the top would be thoroughly entertaining.
However, his own pride may prevent him from continuing to trudge around tour if he is not in contention on a weekly basis, and at least in the back of his mind he must surely have considered how best to make a graceful exit.
His participation in a pair of tournaments in Gstaad, Switzerland, and Hamburg, Germany, over the summer only intensified the chatter. The official word was that Federer played in those smaller events – the type of which he might normally skip – to test out a new, larger racket that was subsequently ditched.
Yet there is also the possibility that his entry was a last chance to perform in front of crowds closest to the most loyal and central part of his global fan base.
The other factor to consider is that while failure, at least by his own previously extraordinary standards, could push Federer closer to retirement, so could an expected success, either over the next two weeks or at Wimbledon next year.
Pete Sampras never picked up a racket in official competition again after his unexpected triumph at Flushing Meadows as the 17th seed in 2002 provided a dream sendoff. At 31, he was a year younger than Federer now.
Victory for the Swiss master this time around would be just as improbable as Sampras' last hurrah. Just as Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray had established themselves as the pair of ultimate forces in the game, Rafa Nadal produced a remarkable comeback from a lengthy injury layoff comprised of nine tournament wins and two runner-up finishes, but also a shocking first-round loss to Steve Darcis at Wimbledon.
Furthermore, now that Federer is out of the top four, the draws for Grand Slams will be far less kind. Last week in Cincinnati, he was seeded fifth, met Nadal in the quarters, put up a brave fight but was bounced in three sets. If both men negotiate their section, another last eight meeting beckons at the U.S. Open.
"I don't see at this stage [Federer] being able to go through all seven rounds and have to beat at least two of these three guys [Djokavic, Murray and Nadal]," McEnroe said.
No longer does the name Federer strike terror into the hearts of weaker opponents as it once did, as evidenced by his Wimbledon loss to 116-ranked Sergiy Stakhovsky and other unexpected stumbles in minor tournaments.
If the option of the stunning goodbye triumph is elusive, there is the possibility of the grand farewell tour. That would see him announce, probably at the end of this season, that next year would be his last. He would certainly be feted and applauded at every tour stop, each venue relishing in the opportunity to show their appreciation for a career that along with Sampras' and Rod Laver's, is among the top three in any argument of all-time greatness.
Only Federer himself knows how appealing such a scenario would be. Ether way, time is ticking on one of tennis' favorite sons, and for a New York audience that cheered him to five straight U.S. Open titles from 2004-08, the chances to see him in action are running out.
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