For the third of a million who belong to Roger Federerâ€™s website and the nine million signed up to his Facebook page, these have been days for gazing out to seaâ€”longing for tide and wind to combine for the next surge.
For so used have Federer aficionados grown to watching his tennis in the secure knowledge that he would make the clutch win, dominate an opponent or secure the title that the experience of 2011 has left them uneasy, unsettled, all at sea.
In the spring, Federer slipped from No2 in the rankings to No3 as Djokovic continued his unbroken streak to two North American Masters titles.
For the first time since 2008, a year that began with glandular fever and ended with back injury, he has thus far failed to win a Masters. Not since 2001 has he failed to reach a Masters final, until now.
He lost in the quarter-finals of Wimbledon for the second straight year from two sets up. Two months later, he did the same against Novak Djokovic at the US Open.
That US loss marked the first time since 2003 that he had failed to reach the final in New York. It also made 2011 his first year without a Grand Slam title since 2002.
And with only three events left on his calendar, Federer has won just a single title, the 250 in Doha in the first week of the 2011 tour.
This week, there came one more bitter pill to swallow. With his withdrawal from the Shanghai Masters to rest some niggling injuries, Federer fell to No4 in the rankings for the first time since he won Wimbledon in 2003.
Where â€œone woe doth tread upon anotherâ€™s heels,â€ how easy it becomes to overlook two Grand Slam semi-finals, three Masters semis, a 500 final and a French Open during which he ended Djokovicâ€™s unbeaten 2011 in the semis and played one of his best Roland Garros finals against Nadal.
Much, of course, was made of the arrival of a landmark birthday: Federer turned 30 in August, more than 10 years after winning his first ATP title. Perhaps after playing 50 Grand Slams (and an unbroken run of 48 of them), winning 16 Majors and 17 Masters, and notching up almost a 1,000 matches, the novelty had started to wear a bit thin.
At his pre-US Open news conference, questioned about his age for the nth time, he rejected any such suggestion: â€œIt hasnâ€™t changed anything. Iâ€™m still as professional. Iâ€™m still as hungry. Itâ€™s just a number thatâ€™s changed, you know.â€
He had dealt with a similar scenario ahead of his 29th birthday. After winning the Australian Open title in 2010, he went on to lose his second match at Indian Wells, his third at Miami and his first at Rome. His unbroken run of 23 Grand Slam semis was halted at the French Open and a quarter-final exit was repeated at Wimbledon.
His solution then was to take on the experience of Paul Annacone, who told the New York Times: â€œWhen we first started talking, his level of excitement and desire to keep playing and to do it in a way thatâ€™s positive, optimistic, energetic and open-minded, really kind of floored me. I felt like I was with a 22-year-old.â€
Federer bounced back to win the Cincinnati, Stockholm and Basel titles, reached the finals of two more Masters, the semis of the US Open and Paris Masters and won the World Tour Finals title unbeaten.
Much is made, and rightly so, of the part Federerâ€™s style of tennis has played in enabling him both to remain relatively injury free over the long term but also to take on new tools and adapt his craft.
His is a game built around balance and footwork, timing and tactics, the ability to win a point in a variety of ways, a melding of offensive power with creative touch.
But another contributor to Federer longevity has been careful scheduling. After becoming No1 in 2004, he played no more than 19 tournaments a year until he slipped to No3. Early losses in the first half of 2010 allowed him to add a couple of extra events into the latter half: His schedule rose to 21.
This year he has played a similar number but with a different structure. After the US Open, Federer made the long trip to Sydney to play an important World Group Play-off in the Davis Cup.
The pay-off, after three four-setters in three days, was the Shanghai Masters, where withdrawal forfeited 600 ranking points and the likelihood of a slip in the rankings to No4.
In this pragmatic choice lies what seems to be a subtle shift in the maturing Federerâ€™s schedule, a shift to which he alluded in an interview just days before the Montreal Masters: â€œIâ€™m already thinking beyond the Olympics next year. Thatâ€™s kind of how my schedule goes- my planning is always long term.â€
There are two important trophies that Federer has so far failed to lift: The Davis Cup itself and the biggest unfulfilled goal of his career.
For while Federer may have an Olympic gold in doubles, he would like to complete his personal resumÃ© with a gold in the singlesâ€”and 2012 must be his last realistic chance to do so.
In a new interview published this week in the French magazine Lâ€™Equipe, he made this ambition abundantly clear: â€œThe gold medal in the London Olympics, at Wimbledon. That gold medal, I still donâ€™t have it, but Olympic gold has always represented something special to me.â€
He also made it clear, however, that his ambitions are not bound only by the Olympics: â€œIâ€™m looking forward to whatâ€™s coming next. There are still important goals for me, starting with my hometown tournament in Basel, the London Mastersâ€¦and I imagine Iâ€™ll be very hungry at the next Australian Open.â€
He is, in fact, aiming to schedule a fine line between a variety of short-term and long-term goals.
With the dropping of the Shanghai Masters, his first short-term target is to defend his top-four position. If he plays poorly in Basel and Paris and fails to go beyond the round-robin phase of the World Tour Finals, his points will fall away. That, in turn, could leave David Ferrer, if he performs particularly well, with a theoretical chance of overtaking Federer by year end.
This would be a â€œwoeâ€ that even the perennially positive Federer might find hard to shrug off. While a No4 ranking may influence a playerâ€™s standing in the eyes of opponents and the wider world, it has little impact on the practicalities of tournament draws: There are always two top-four players to overcome. But as a No5, the route to victory can be blocked by three higher-ranked men.
Such challenges, though, are Federerâ€™s life-blood. â€œA challenge is when you want to achieve something for the first time.
“Once itâ€™s done, you play for the joy of being the best in your job, and winning, but you donâ€™t have anything to prove any more. What changes when you reach the last stretch is that you canâ€™t content yourself with this. You want to prove to everyone and yourself that you can still win a Grand Slam, and for that you have to beat Rafa and Djokovic and Murray.
â€œI like all these changes. I prefer finding solutions to the new problemsâ€”it spices up the situation. And it would be sad to live this tennis player life in a totally routine way.â€
His first challenge is to end 2011 with the same bang as he finished 2010, not least to give himself some momentum into the Australian Open.
The next will be to assert his form and intent in Melbourne and North America before the tour builds to its summer climax.
The biggest challenge will come at the scene of his greatest success and his favourite Grand Slam. After two quarter-final exits in succession at Wimbledon, Federer still needs one more singles title to match the all-time record of seven set by Pete Sampras and William Renshaw.
More important still, he needs to pace his run towards London to ensure peak fitness and stamina. Only the fittest and canniest will survive the double Wimbledon hit, and Federer will not be the only one to build their yearâ€™s schedule around the six weeks of 2012â€™s grass.
How many compromises will be made along the way itâ€™s impossible to judge. There may be more Shanghais with the sacrifice of ranking points in favour of long-term gain. There may be early losses or reclaimed titles. And there may be, just three days before his 31st birthday, Olympic gold.
Win or lose, Federerâ€™s admirers must enjoy the ride, as he plans to, without fear: â€œAfter all Iâ€™ve done, Iâ€™ll be able to stop playing at peace with myself. When itâ€™s over, itâ€™s over. Iâ€™m proud of my career, and I know that I have many more years to live after tennisâ€¦more things to accomplish. The end doesnâ€™t scare me.â€
Interview with Dominique Bonnot for L’Equipe, translated by Clairouille at RF.com
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