Roger Federer insists he can defy his advancing years but increasingly regular defeats have pushed him out of the “Big Four” and tell their own story of decline.
Just 12 months ago the Swiss great, now aged 32, was back at the top of the world rankings after winning his seventh Wimbledon crown.
But this year has been sobering for the 17-time grand slam champion, who saw his incredible record of 36 consecutive grand slam quarter-finals ended abruptly in the second round at Wimbledon, before an early exit at the US Open.
Thursday’s third round defeat at the Shanghai Masters for the world No.7 — at the hands of flamboyant Frenchman Gael Monfils — was in some ways notable for its lack of shock value.
Expectations have waned. There is no longer the confidence that Federer, who has amassed 77 titles and nearly $US80 million ($A84.84 million) in prize money, will dig deep and produce the magic when he needs it most.
The player himself remains sanguine about his drop down the rankings, as the “Big Four” shrinks to a “Big Three” of Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray — yet he insists he can turn his form around.
Following his defeat to Monfils, ranked 42nd in the world, Federer, with just one title to his name this year, spoke about his hopes for a strong end to the season.
He refused to punish himself even though he is in serious danger of missing out on next month’s eight-man, end-of-season World Tour Finals, which he has won a record six times.
“It’s pretty simple — you just keep on working hard, make sure that you get back on winning ways, then you become confident again, sort of get there,” he said.
“It’s just important not to worry too much, to be honest,” he added. “It’s important to keep on doing what I’m doing. Obviously, I might get tougher draws as we move along with my ranking not being in the top four any more. But that’s OK.”
Djokovic, while acknowledging that the Swiss has not played his best tennis over the past year, is wary of writing him off.
“He’s Federer. He’s the top grand slam winner in history. Whenever he plays, wherever he plays, he’s always in the spotlight, he’s always the man to beat,” said the Serb.
“This is fact, and it’s going to stay that way as long as he’s going to play tennis.”
And former Australian great Rod Laver, speaking in Shanghai before Federer’s defeat, predicted the Swiss could yet add to his bulging grand slam collection, most likely at the Australian Open or Wimbledon.
But Federer, who has struggled with back problems this year, has won just one of his past five matches against Nadal in an increasingly lopsided rivalry, and has endured high-profile defeats at the hands of both Djokovic and Murray.
The man who has spent a record total of 302 weeks at world No.1 has perhaps missed the chance to go out in a blaze of glory in the manner of Pete Sampras after his US Open win in 2002.
But the father of twins, who has cut down on the number of tournaments he plays, still apparently loves the game enough to stick around on tour.
Federer may be content to follow the example of fellow 32-year-old Lleyton Hewitt, who continues to play years after he fell from the pinnacle of the game.
Regardless of the swirling debate over his future, it is clear that for Federer, talk of long-term decline is premature.
“My mindset now is, OK, next year is going to be a great year again where I’m not going to have that many points to defend, especially at some very key moments where I consider myself a favourite,” he said before his opener in Shanghai.
“For that reason I’m really looking forward to 2014 already.”