How long will Roger Federer be able to tolerate his new place in the pecking order of tennis?
In my mind he's a god, but on my television screen he's a conundrum. At times Roger Federer looks invincible, the nimble virtuoso that we've always revered: smooth, svelte, and incandescent. At others he is coming apart at the seams, missing so badly that it hurts to watch.
It's hard to tell where Roger Federer is headed in the short term, but it's not difficult to tell that he isn't the player he once was. Gone are the seemingly limitless stretches of dominant play. Missing is the intimidation factor that had many of his opponents beaten before they stepped on the court to face him.
(Insert melodramatic music and emotional Federer highlight montage here).
The final act of the magical mystery tour known as Federer's bedazzling career might be closer to a conclusion than we think, and there is a growing fear that his last Grand Slam title might already be behind him.
Then again, we've written the maestro off before, and the last time we really had him pegged for dead he promptly won three of the next four Grand Slams. So maybe Roger's confounding error-prone loss to Novak Djokovic on Saturday in Dubai was nothing to be concerned about. Maybe he's playing possum, fooling his adversaries into thinking that he's dead in the water so that he can sneak up on them in the Slams when they least expect it.
More Grand Slam triumphs certainly aren't out of the realm of possibility for a player his age. Federer's only 29 and he's remarkably fit. Plus, he's got recent history on his side.
Agassi and Sampras each tallied Grand Slam titles beyond the age of thirty, so it's not ridiculous at all to expect the same from Federer, who has spent the better part of the last eight years casually collecting Grand Slam trophies like children collect baseball cards or matchbox cars.
That being said, it can't be enjoyable for Federer to be taking his lumps against players he used to annihilate. He's still brilliant but he's not the epitomé of brilliance that he used to be, and if Roger finds himself in the same or a worse form by the end of 2011, will he do more than entertain thoughts of hanging it up after the 2012 Olympics in London?
There are six Grand Slam events between now and the next Olympic Games, and if Federer hasn't found a way back to a Grand Slam final by then (hard to imagine a year ago, but easier to imagine given his recent form) I'm not so sure he'll want to continue plying his trade as a less than elite player.
It's comforting to hear Federer speak of his love for the game and his desire to play for many more years so that his kids can watch him perform, and I have no doubt that he genuinely feels this way at the moment, but a lot can change in a little time. Just ask Bjorn Borg and Justine Henin. What Roger feels and wants today is not necessarily what he'll want and feel tomorrow.
At the moment, we are faced with the bittersweet reality that the sun is slowly setting on one of the greatest players to ever play to game. As much as we all want to believe that he'll play on as long as we want him to, the fact remains that a lot hinges on his performance for the remainder of 2011. If Federer continues to produce erratic tennis and puzzling losses to what used to be lesser opponents as he did in 2010, he'll inevitably start to weigh the value of tarnishing his legacy versus the chances of winning another Grand Slam title.
Federer won't have the luxury of being judged easily. He'll always be judged against what we witnessed him to be -- one of the best, if not the best, to ever play.
Getting out of bed and trying to measure up to that standard every day can't be easy. Since he's the player that created the standard in the first place, maybe he will be up to the task.
It's worth it to mention that Federer has only lost to one player this year, and that he's still a threat to win against anyone, anywhere. But Federer is not accustomed to being a threat. He's accustomed to being the threat.
How will he respond to the challenge of turning 30? Can he rein in the mistakes and wreak havoc on the elite again? Is there really anything left to prove for him?
Questions abound, and, as the sun sets, the answers will come.