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The unique mystery of his samurai grace on the court has been brutally exposed and at the too soon age of 27, he has commenced a clear downward trajectory. Opponents feared him less and what once appeared an unimpeachable legacy as the best ever is very much in doubt.
In the ensuing months, a melancholy has gathered around Federer as the aura of magic seeps from him gradually, almost ineffably, as vapor from a bottle. After losing to Nadal in the finals of the Australian Open earlier this year, Federer stood on the court sobbing. It did not seem a histrionic or self-aggrandizing gesture— there was something genuinely sad happening. A few weeks later, Sports Illustrated published a harsh but fair article entitled “How Rafael Nadal Humbled Federer”.
Paradoxically, for all which he has lost, the current impasse represents an opportunity for Federer to gain stature of an even more rarified kind. The last two rounds of this week’s French Open will determine a great deal about how Federer is remembered. As the #2 seed, Federer has played brilliantly at times and erratically at others, but well enough to make it into the semi-finals. The real news was the shocking upset of Nadal, the four time defending champion who was beaten for the first time ever in 31 matches at Roland Garros, setting the stage for Federer to either cement his legacy as one of the all time greats, or in all likelihood, tarnish that reputation for good.
It is rare to see the distillation of so long and distinguished a career into a single event. One analogy is a slightly faded Muhammad Ali facing George Foreman for the heavyweight title in 1974. Early in his career, Ali had, like Federer, dazzled with transcendent physical talent which seemed to rewrite the rulebook for the entire sport. He was untouchable and impervious, and utterly without peer. Until he wasn’t. By the time Ali faced Foreman he had suffered through a government imposed layoff for refusing to serve in Vietnam and had been badly slapped around by Joe Frazier and Ken Norton during his comeback. No one thought of Ali as a one of a kind physical marvel any longer, and no one expected him to beat Foreman. When he did win — more with wits, courage and guile than superior skill — Ali entered a pantheon reserved for athletes who are loved as much for their will to persevere as for their inherent physical attributes. It seems the same impulse which causes us to feel disturbed at the site of a great athlete in obvious decline, create extraordinary affection for those who manage to succeed despite their new found limitations.
Should Federer manage to overcome the welter of difficulty that has plagued his performance over the past year and triumph in the French, his legacy will be secure. He will have established a record of greatness on all four surfaces, and he will have erased the memory of last year’s devastating Waterloo. Furthermore, he will have achieved this at a time of profound vulnerability, when questions surrounding his career have shifted from whether he is the best player of all time to whether he was ever as good as his contemporary. Win and Federer belongs in a conversation with any individual who has ever played the sport. Lose and he is something of an enigma, a spectacular talent seemingly undone psychologically by one resolute rival.
The stakes could not be higher, and regardless, the outcome will be poignant.