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The Beginning of the End for Roger Federer

Given their respective histories, it seemed strange that Rafael Nadal was the healthier of the two players on the court during his win against Roger Federer at Indian Wells yesterday. After all, it was only last month that Nadal made his long-awaited comeback from a knee injury and it is possible to count on one hand the number of injuries that the seemingly indestructible Roger Federer has suffered in his career.

However, as a player ages, it is only natural that a player’s body begins to suffer from the wear and tear of the years on the tour, even a player such as Roger Federer. The back injury that has troubled the Swiss number one has been a recurring problem for a while now, albeit with varying severity. He had back problems a few years ago and the problem flared up again on varying occasions last year, notable in Doha and then at Wimbledon.

In the previous round, he had struggled past his compatriot, Stanislas Wawrinka, but there were signs that he was not 100%. Last night, it was crystal clear. The eagerly anticipated match between two of the greatest players of the modern era turned into a procession for the returning Nadal. Federer played down his injury after the match, but there was no doubting that it played a major role in the defeat.

What is notable though is that it continues a disappointing year for the seventeen-time Grand Slam champion. He reached the semi-final of the Australian Open after a titanic battle with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, before crashing out to Andy Murray. Quite how that match went five sets is still a mystery though, given the domination of the Brit throughout all five sets.

A limp performance saw him eliminated in the quarter-finals in Rotterdam against 39th ranked, Julien Benneteau, only the third defeat to a player outside the top 30 in almost three years. The previous two had been against Andy Roddick and Tommy Haas, both former top two players. A semi-final defeat to Tomas Berdych in Dubai, followed by this defeat to Rafa Nadal means that he is yet to reach a final in 2013. This run of four tournaments without a final appearance is his longest drought for over two years.

Indeed, if Andy Murray reaches the final at Indian Wells, he will rise to number two in the world, pushing Roger Federer out of the top two. With the form of Novak Djokovic, the newly found confidence of Andy Murray and the resurgence of Rafael Nadal, it is a very real possibility that Federer has played his last match ranked inside the top two.

Naturally, his declining form does raise the question of retirement. Last year, he spoke of being exhausted at times, and he is set to embark on a seven-week break from tennis, skipping the Miami Masters and not returning until the Madrid Masters in May. He has also hinted at wanting to spend more time with his family, with his twin girls now three-years old.

Of course, tennis fans want to savour every moment of Roger Federer and want him to keep going. But similarly, it would be a shame to see such a great player slipping down the rankings. It would be a real surprise if he does continue playing once his ranking begins to slide. It is difficult to imagine Roger Federer outside the top 4, and I doubt he would tolerate that either. For a man that sets such high standards for himself, the frustration at not being able to perform as he used to is clear at times.

It will be fascinating to see where his game is when he returns in Madrid in two months time. Hopefully, his back should be improved, if not completely recovered, and the break may give him the renewed desire for the game. However, with maximum points to defend in Madrid, plus semi-final points in Rome and Roland Garros, he has plenty to lose and not a great deal to gain.

Even if Murray does not overtake Federer this week, it would be a surprise if he does not surpass him by the time Federer takes to the court again. Murray does not have many points to defend in Monte Carlo, Barcelona or Madrid, so has the potential to increase his tally significantly.

At 31, Roger Federer has had a glittering career, perhaps one that will never be surpassed. However, it would now appear that he is no longer able to regularly compete with the younger Djokovic and Murray. He has also now won just four of his last seventeen meetings with Rafael Nadal. His victory at Wimbledon was a glorious reminder of why we should not write him off, but could it be a final hurrah?

As I mentioned earlier, it could well be that Roger Federer has played his last ever match as a top two player. And if his struggles continue, we should savour his every appearance on the big stage. Every good thing comes to an end eventually…

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