Age, seeding are only numbers to Federer
NEW YORK — The numbers are not the sort that Roger Federer likes to see beside his name.
One of them — his age, 32 — he cannot control.
The other — his ranking, No. 7 — he insists he can.
“People are going to say what they like,” Federer said Saturday, two days before his first-round match at the U.S. Open. “Important is that I concentrate on my game and that the passion is there, that I work the right way, that I’m prepared, and that I feel like I can win a tournament.”
The five-time U.S. Open champion is seeded seventh, the biggest number next to his name at a Grand Slam tournament since 2003, the year he started on his record-setting run of 17 majors.
In June, Federer exited Wimbledon in the second round, the earliest he’d been dismissed from a major tournament since the 2003 French Open. Starting with that loss, his season has included a steady diet of defeats that would have once been considered freakish and a withdrawal from a tournament that went unexplained.
All these factors point toward an obvious conclusion: Age is taking its toll on the most decorated men’s player ever.
Not since Pete Sampras captured the trophy in 2002 has a man over 30 won the U.S. Open.
But Federer doesn’t envision quite such a grim picture. A bad back that might help explain some of his summer doldrums is no longer bothering him. A new racket that confounded him over the summer has been shelved for the time being. His ranking, and corresponding seeding, may have dropped from third to seventh in the nine weeks between Wimbledon and the Open, where his first-round match is against 61st-ranked Grega Zemlja, but Federer considers himself fit enough to contend.
“Now I can really say I’m really just focused on the point for point, and that’s why I’m not concerned,” he said. “My back problem is not that major. I just need to make sure I don’t have any bad moments in the future.”
He would love to wipe away most of this 2013 season.
He has a grand total of one tournament title, won at a small event in Halle, Germany — a grass-court tune-up for Wimbledon.
In addition to his second-round Wimbledon loss to 116th-ranked Sergiy Stakhovsky, Federer has fallen to No. 114 Federico Delbonis and No. 55 Daniel Brands, the sort of players who used to feel beaten by Federer before they even walked on the court.
That air of invincibility is gone, and small cracks in a once-impenetrable facade have cropped up.
Federer withdrew in Montreal early this month without giving a reason, though he had been complaining about his back through the summer. He expanded on his health Saturday, saying the back was no problem as he heads into this, his 58th appearance at a major.
“At times, I was playing a lot, having it in the back of my mind, and that has definitely affected me sometimes with my movement … and actually not being able to really focus on the point for point mentality that you want to have out on the tennis court,” Federer said. “So now, I can really say I’m really just focused on the point for point, and that’s why I’m not concerned. “
Federer had been working with a new, slightly larger racket, but was unable to figure out the nuances of the prototype and decided to shelve the experiment until after the U.S. Open is over.
“I just said, ‘You know, I’ll go back to the racket I know and the racket I have won everything with,'” Federer said.
Novak Djokovic, the man occupying the No. 1 spot that Federer once owned, (He was seeded No. 1 at 18 consecutive Grand Slam tournaments from 2004-08) calls the ups and downs with the rankings simply a cycle of life.
“You can’t always expect somebody to be at the highest level,” Djokovic said. “It’s normal to go up and down. That’s why this sport is so very demanding, physically, mentally, emotionally. In any way you turn it around, the sport is actually asking from a tennis player everything, you know, all the commitment possible from every aspect.”
Federer insists his commitment has never waned, even if his ranking has.
He says this takes him back to his younger days, in his early 20s, when he used to get excited at the prospect of what the new rankings would look like each Monday.
“Usually, I was more excited that it was going up,” Federer said. “The older you get, the less you pay attention to it. But nevertheless, I clearly want to move up from here.”