Cincinnati: Roger Federer, world No. 7: It is a notion as difficult to compute for his rivals as it is for the great man himself.
But this will be the chastening reality when the 17-time Grand Slam champion pitches up in New York for next week’s US Open, having been defeated in Cincinnati by arch-nemesis Rafael Nadal in the 31st chapter of their glorious rivalry.
It is in Federer’s sanguine nature to play down the rankings, but the sense of slipping behind Juan Martin del Potro and Tomas Berdych to be only the seventh seed at Flushing Meadows is one that hurts his own conception of his place in the sport.
At 32, the fading of the light, despite his wonderful flourishes throughout a 7-5, 4-6, 3-6 quarter final loss to Nadal, is inescapable.
That extraordinary upset against Sergiy Stakhovsky at Wimbledon turns out to have been no aberration, given his subsequent early exits at lower-tier tournaments in Hamburg and Gstaad and now his third successive defeat to Nadal at the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati, where, as the reigning champion, he had 1,000 ranking points to defend.
Mercifully, Federer was not about to make any hasty decision, in a week when Marion Bartoli chose to announce her retirement a mere 40 days after her Wimbledon triumph.
“I’m happy with my progress,” said the Swiss, after three sets of explosive exchanges with Nadal that approached the level of their greatest Grand Slam encounters.
“I know that my body’s fine and my mind’s OK, and I can definitely take more from this week than I could for the last three months.”
But the statistical messages are proving difficult to ignore, especially when his head-to-head record against Nadal now stands at 21-10 in the Spaniard’s favour.
Pressed on that incongruous No. 7 spot in the hierarchy, Federer said: “Rankings at this point are not what lead me. It’s about getting my game back on track, and that’s what I’m doing well. That’s what’s exciting right now, not the rankings.”
How starkly his outlook contrasted with that of Nadal, who sustained his blistering hard court form to eclipse Federer and seize his 51st win in 54 matches in 2013.
But the Majorcan, typically, was generous in his prognosis for the remainder of Federer’s year.
“Roger was on court with a different tactic, with a different level of tennis,” he said. “So if he is able to play this way – and I’m sure he can do it – I see his ranking as being higher at the end of the season.”
Andy Murray, meanwhile, is short of hard court match-time ahead of the US Open after succumbing 6-3, 6-4 to Berdych, failing to counter the Czech’s powerful groundstrokes as he made 28 unforced errors in little over an hour.
The Wimbledon champion has won just three matches in his traditional US Open tune-ups in Montreal and Cincinnati – an improvement, at any rate, from the two victories that prefaced his New York breakthrough 12 months ago.
As he prepares for further training sessions this week with coach Ivan Lendl, one trusts he can retain his recent habit of peaking at the right time. (Agencies)