Last week-- based on their struggles thus far in 2010 -- Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer were not automatic locks to reach the final of the French Open, as they did in 2006-08.
Nadal must have read the column and taken offense, because he roared through his first clay court tournament of the season last week, hustling Fernando Verdasco off the court in a 6-0, 6-1 rout in the final at Monte Carlo. Nadal's performance in Monte Carlo was so frighteningly emphatic -- losing only 14 games against five players on a surface that favors long rallies and matches -- that he has hurtled to the top of the list of French Open favorites. The beast is back.
I was more on the mark with World No. 1 Roger Federer, who continues to rack up early exits in key tournaments this year. Most recently, Federer lost in his first round match this week at the Italian Open, bowing to rising star Ernests Gulbis. This follows disappointing showings in the spring hard court season, where he lost mid-way in the two biggest tournaments in Indian Wells and Key Biscayne.
It's hard to write a convincing obit for a player who won the first grand slam of the year at the Australian Open in January. But I think Federer will be hard pressed to equal last year's back-to-back wins at the French and Wimbledon this year.
I also predict that by the end of 2010, Federer will have lost his No. 1 ranking.
It's all in the mind
Federer turns 29 in August, which puts him squarely in the tail end of his career. Back in the days of wooden racquets, top players could often play well into their 30s. But today's high-impact game takes its toll on the body, even for fluid players like Federer, who has remained injury-free for most of his career.
In the twilight of her career, clay court empress Chris Evert spoke about how her once-favorite surface had become her most problematic. She said she didn't have the patience to grind out long rallies on clay. And to keep it together for seven matches it takes to win a grand slam.
Federer likes to say that he plans to play well into his 30s. But I wonder if that will be the case, if he continues to lose focus -- and tournaments. Particularly if his ranking drops and he starts meeting top players in the quarterfinals instead of finals.
This time last year there was a lot of drama over whether Federer would be able to tie or beat Pete Sampras' record of 14 grand slams. Particularly as a surging Rafael Nadal had tumbled Federer from his perch at the top. I think many of us were looking forward to a long campaign where Federer's mettle would be tested as he soldiered along on his quest, finally achieving it after much heartache and effort.
Instead, Roger snapped his fingers, waved his wand, and ran off three grand slams rat-a-tat-tat -- The French Open, Wimbledon of 2009 and the 2010 Australian to set his mark at 16 grand slams.
Federer is now a player who has done it all, achieved everything, and will go down in the record books as the greatest tennis player of all time. He is closing in on Pete Sampras' last laurel, the player to hold the No. 1 ranking for the most weeks cumulatively. Pete was No. 1 for 286 weeks, and Roger this week is at 280. Even if he loses in the first round of the French Open, Roger is so far ahead in ranking points that he will beat this record in another six weeks.
So the question remains: How will Roger keep himself motivated when the only goal is to keep piling onto records he has already exceeded?
Is Roger Federer out of gas?