NEW YORK – Plagued by back trouble and the declining influence brought on by advancing years, Roger Federer heads for the US Open with his game and legacy, if not his famed confidence, in crisis.
The 17-time Grand Slam title winner is at a crossroads as he prepares for his 14th US Open.
A five-time champion at Flushing Meadows from 2004 to 2008, the 32-year-old Swiss finds himself at seven in the world – his lowest ranking since October 2002 – after a tortuous summer.
His second round loss to Ukraine’s world number 116 Sergiy Stakhovsky at Wimbledon was his worst Grand Slam defeat for a decade and ended a run of 36 successive quarter-final appearances at the majors.
Then followed the bizarre decision to play low-profile claycourt events in Hamburg and Gstaad which ended in shattering losses to unheralded Federico Delbonis and Daniel Brands, both outside the top 50.
There was even a brief flirtation with a larger racquet as Federer scrambled for a recovery.
The statistics are conspiring against the former world number one whose last US Open final appearance ended in defeat to Juan Martin Del Potro in 2009.
His great hero Pete Sampras won his fifth and final US Open in 2002 when he was 31 and promptly quit the sport, a punch-drunk second round exit at Wimbledon having already warned him of the dangers of over-staying his welcome.
Meanwhile, Federer’s great rivals – Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray – all seem comfortably to have the measure of him.
World number one Djokovic trails 16-13 in their career match-ups but the Serb, who was the 2011 champion in New York and runner-up in 2010 and 2012, has won seven of their last 10 meetings.
Nadal leads 21-10 and has also won seven of their last 10 clashes, including all three in 2013.
Murray, the defending US Open champion, leads Federer 11-9 and has split their last 10 clashes.
Federer, however, insists he is unconcerned about his predicament, shrugging off his lowly ranking and preferring to accentuate the positives gleaned from taking a set off Nadal in their Cincinnati quarter-final last week.
“It doesn’t change anything for the US Open. As long as you’re either in the top 4 or the top 8, I think at this point that’s what matters,” said Federer.
“Rankings are not what lead me. It’s about getting my game back on track, and that’s what I’m doing well. So that’s what’s exciting right now.”
The Swiss will discover how tricky his New York path will be when the draw is made later Thursday, but his humble seeding means he could face any of the top three as early as the quarter-finals.
He insists his back problem is not the restriction that it has been in recent weeks, even if, deep down, he remains to be totally convinced.
“I believe when I can walk and I can hit decent, you never know. Sometimes miracles happen, like last year at Wimbledon (when he beat Murray to win his most recent Grand Slam title). You get a bit lucky or you heal well, get the extra day off, and all that stuff.”