Roger Federer has never been a player allow any doubts to creep into his game, but he perhaps would have entered into his US Open semi-final meeting with Marin Cilic buoyed somewhat by not having to face Novak Djokovic were he to get past the big-serving Croatian.
Grand Slam woes
Djokovic had that same Saturday been denied a place in the final by an inspired Kei Nishikori, the world No.8, which presented the victor of the Federer-Cilic encounter with a somewhat less daunting opponent in the Flushing Meadows showpiece.
Federer, however, was unable to hold up his end of the bargain as Cilic cantered into the final after producing three sets of tennis of the highest order. It was a stunning triumph and one that signified the day fans of the sport hoped would never come.
There are few that would begrudge Cilic his shot at a maiden championship, but his resounding success over the greatest of them all extinguished what could have been one final shining moment in the glittering career of Roger Federer.
The 33-year-old had come so very close to clinching a memorable Grand Slam win in July, a title that would have been just his third in four years, but Djokovic held his nerve to do the job in five absorbing sets on the pristine turf at Wimbledon.
It could have been the end for Federer there at the All England Club, his favourite of venues. But he was not prepared to give in despite that draining defeat, and mounted a genuine tilt at the next available slam.
However, it will be difficult for Federer to come back again after his latest loss. It was significantly less of a physical battle than the Wimbledon final, but the manner in which Federer was dismantled could, and perhaps should, see him finally bow out.
Time to bow out
It was perhaps then fitting that Federer became acquainted with another of sport’s enduring icons earlier in his most recent attempt to secure glory at this US Open.
Michael Jordan was in attendance for Federer’s first round defeat of Marinko Matosevic, and the latter hailed the former Chicago Bulls superstar as his “big sporting idol” and claimed it was “amazing” to have him at the match.
Jordan, like Federer, is someone to have transcended his sport, yet his became a legacy unnecessarily tarnished in the latter days of his career. A flirtation with baseball and an eventual move to Orlando Magic affected a legend that should have remained in Chicago.
Federer has equalled his idol and risen above and beyond any other to have played his sport. But he can look at Jordan as an athlete who never knew the right time to leave. For Federer that time should be now.
It feels very much like a changing of the guard, with Monday’s final the first contested by two players outside of the ‘big four’ in nine years, and given his advanced years it will be Federer who first succumbs to this new era.
Andy Murray has, of course, slipped down the rankings while Rafael Nadal continues to struggle with injury, but aged 27 and 28 these two have enough time left on the clock to rediscover form and fitness in the coming months and years.
The new order
While Federer may be in the twilight of his career, he does maintain an unerring desire to win, while his key attributes - that exquisite backhand and metronomic serve - have shown little sign of diminishing.
The problem for Federer is that others have been able to reach what had once appeared an unassailable level of excellence. First there was Nadal, then Djokovic and Murray, while now Nishikori, Cilic, Stanislas Wawrinka have also caught up.
After Wawrinka's win in Melbourne in January and with either of the two US Open finalists set to clinch a maiden crown, it will be the first time since 2003 that more than one player has won a first slam in the same year. This, of course, was the year Federer claimed his first Wimbledon. An omen, perhaps.
The progress of these others is not to say Federer has stagnated, or allowed his standard to slip through complacency, but rather he was tasked with the prospect of bettering perfection in order to keep others at bay - and how does one set about doing that?
But Federer no longer has that fear factor he once possessed; that acceptable level of arrogance on the court that was permitted given his unquestioned superiority. It was inevitable things would change, and it is commendable that he has been able to mix it at the top end for such a sustained period.
The majority of his records, numerous as they are, will stand the test of time. Federer reached a quite breathtaking 23 consecutive Grand Slam semi-finals, bettering the previous benchmark by 13 appearances, and we are sure to never see the likes again.
Although it is not a statistic to hold the same allure as some of the greatest in sport, all of sport that is, it is genuinely one of the most remarkable. But, alas, it may be he must relinquish the most coveted of stats in tennis - total Grand Slam triumphs.
Federer stands out on his own on 17 and has, for two years, been in pursuit of another. In that same time period, Rafael Nadal has managed to add a further three to his haul to place him on 14 wins. It is a record that could realistically be beaten, even if the Swiss adds his elusive No.18.
Why keep going?
He does, however, maintain that it’s “not important” for him to clinch another slam before retirement. “I don’t need it to be more happy or anything," he said after the loss to Cilic.
Well, Roger, why continue? Why embark on another season when there is nothing left to prove, no obsession with reaching another title? As a father of four there are now more important things in life than to continue to push himself to the limit, even if his body still manages to withstand the strain.
Regardless of what Nadal is able to achieve in the years that remain of his distinguished career, Federer will continue to be judged as the greatest of all. His feel for the racquet and his grace on the court are unrivalled. He could even lay a fair claim to the title of the most complete athlete ever.
The game of tennis has been fortunate to have Roger Federer and it will be loath to lose him. Of course the perfect way to bow out would be with a win on the grandest stage, and next summer at Wimbledon would do rather nicely.
He has given so much to the sport during 11 years in its upper echelons and, likewise, the tennis aficionados and wider public have offered just as much in return. A mutual parting of ways before the wheels finally fall off would be the ideal outcome. None of us can bear to witness another lesson like the one provided by Cilic.
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