(February 20, 2013) -- I know what you're thinking: stupid question. Does snow fall on the Himalayas? Do bears catch salmon with their bare paws?
So we agree, Roger Federer can win more Grand Slams. Over an illustrious career that has seen him rack up 17 of them, with 76 titles, nearly 900 wins and a seemingly never ending stream of milestones to boot, he's proven that beyond a shadow of a doubt.
But after watching the Mighty Fed go down in two sets to Julien Benneteau in the Rotterdam quarterfinals last week, it's getting tricky to project Federer's current 7-2 record outward for 2013. Given that Federer hadn't lost a quarterfinal to a single player outside the top 20 since 2008 when he lost to Radek Stepanek in Rome, should we raise the red flag here?
Was it just an off day against an opponent who has given him trouble in the past (Benneteau defeated Federer in Paris in 2009 and nearly upset him at Wimbledon last year), or has Federer finally lost enough of his magical powers to make him vulnerable on any day, against any opponent?
That's a big question, and whether or not the answer is yes will undoubtedly have an impact on how 2013 plays out for our resident de facto GOAT.
Federer has typically been the master of using his experience and his abundance of talent to squash lesser-ranked opponents in early rounds of tournaments, and this has played a pivotal role in his success at majors. But Federer’s inability to slip through the early rounds (in this case a quarterfinal, but for Fed we consider that early) quickly came back to bite him in the year’s first Grand Slam.
This year in Australia, when Federer was forced into back-to-back five-setters at Grand Slams for the first time in his career, we saw first hand how important avoiding having to do that again will be for the 31-year-old going forward. Federer played a fantastic match against Andy Murray in the Australian Open semifinals, and it was one of the most entertaining matches of the season thus far, but in the fifth set, it was clear who had the fresher set of legs, and why. Murray was all over Federer in that final set, and a lot of it was likely due to the fact that Federer had to go the distance with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in a spirited five-setter just two days prior.
At nearly 32 years of age, Federer needs smooth sailing as much as possible in the early rounds in order to give himself a shot against younger opponents who will no doubt try to force him into longer, more punishing matches. But will Federer be able to avoid such pitfalls? After watching him drop serve five times on a relatively fast indoor hard court to the World No. 39, the jury is still out.
One loss in one piddly quarterfinal is certainly not the sign of the Fedpocalypse, but it's not something to simply overlook, either.
With Dubai and Indian Wells on the horizon, it will be interesting to see what type of form Federer exhibits. Last year he won Rotterdam, Dubai and Indian Wells in succession, and the confidence he gained may have been the catalyst for his 71-12 season and his seventh Wimbledon title.
After the loss in Rotterdam, it’s hard not to wonder: Is Federer's loss to Julien Benneteau a sign of things to come, or is it simply a one-off like his loss to Tommy Haas in the Halle final last year, or his loss to Richard Gasquet in Rome in 2011, just weeks before he ended Novak Djokovic’s 43-match winning streak in the French Open semifinals? Those losses didn't keep Federer from returning to the No. 1 ranking and reaching more Grand Slam finals, so why should a loss to Benneteau be a harbinger of Federer's downfall?
Still, the man, myth, legend, maestro, GOAT isn't getting any younger, and his loss to Benneteau was disconcerting--partly because of his age, and partly because of how much better Benneteau looked than Federer on that day. Benneteau cracked Federer’s second serve as if it was a batting practice fastball, winning 20 out of 30 points against what many consider to be one of the best second serves of all time.
Whether the Benneteau loss was a telling moment or not, with Murray's ascent to the Grand Slam stage, and the age difference between Federer and basically every other elite player, it would behoove Federer to get his serve in order and bring his A game to these types of matches in the future. Because with each successive loss to a player like Julien Benneteau, the rest of the ATP will start to believe they too can take a bite out of Federer.
And with more belief from the rest of the field comes more long matches...
Circling back to the question at the top of the page, the answer is clearly yes, yes, yes: Federer can win more Grand Slams. There are moments when Federer looks so imperious, so convincingly sublime, that it’s not hard to imagine him winning 20 Grand Slams. But there are other times, like last week, where you can’t help but wonder if even that old Federer magic might not be enough to get the job done in 2013 and beyond.
Federer will play another 15 Slams if he plays his final U.S. Open in the summer after the 2016 Olympic Games in Brazil. He’s bound to pull off another grand tennis symphony or two before then, but one thing’s for certain at this current point and time: It’s not going to get any easier for the man who has always had the knack for making perfect tennis look so easy.
Watch: Can Roger Win Another Grand Slam? Point-Counterpoint Show