LONDON: Roger Federer will be under even greater scrutiny than usual at Wimbledon next week as the defending champion attempts to prove he is still the dominant force in his sport.
The 28-year-old started the year in assertive fashion as he crushed Andy Murray in the final of the Australian Open, but he has failed to win any of his seven tournaments since that triumph in Melbourne.
It is the lacklustre manner of defeats to the likes of Albert Montanes, Ernests Gulbis and Tomas Berdych — players he would have brushed aside in the past — that has raised questions about Federer’s appetite for success after so many years at the top.
The six-time Wimbledon champion looked distracted and irritable during a four-set defeat to Robin Soderling in the French Open quarter-finals and then allowed a one-set lead to slip away against Lleyton Hewitt in the Halle final on Sunday.
That defeat was especially significant as Federer had not lost at Halle since 2002 and it was only the second loss he had suffered in 78 matches on grass since 2003 — his other being the 2008 Wimbledon final against Rafael Nadal.
Yet for all the speculation over his form, Federer, who has a record 16 Grand Slam titles to his name, is never happier than when he can feel the grass of Wimbledon’s Centre Court under his feet.
He insists he is comfortable with the way he is playing and expects nothing less than another winning performance at Wimbledon.
“I’m happy with the way I’m playing,” Federer said. “It’s unfortunate not coming through (against Hewitt) but I think my level of play is fine.
“It was a good tournament for me at Halle. I’ve got to ensure I draw the right conclusions for Wimbledon. That loss (to Hewitt) doesn’t worry me in any way.”
Federer isn’t the only star player going into Wimbledon with something to prove.
World number three Novak Djokovic is struggling for consistency, while Andy Murray, the world number four, has yet to recover from his mauling by Federer in Australia and looked a long way from his best when Mardy Fish ended his reign as Queen’s champion in the third round last week.
Murray, who reached the Wimbledon semi-finals last year, is Britain’s only hope of ending the long wait for a home winner at the All England Club but he struck a downbeat note when discussing his recent troubles.
“I don’t know whether it’s focus or a lack of confidence. There have been a few occasions this year where I have made more mistakes than usual and had dips in form and that’s something I need to improve,” Murray said.
If Murray can’t challenge Federer, the most likely threat to the Swiss is likely to come from Nadal, who returned to the top of the world rankings after winning his fifth French Open crown.
He reeled off 24 successive victories and claimed titles at Monte Carlo, Rome, Madrid and Roland Garros before losing to Feliciano Lopez at Queen’s last week.
That defeat could largely be attributed to fatigue after such an emotionally and physically draining claycourt campaign.
Nadal will have no shortage of motivation after being forced to miss Wimbledon last year due to knee tendinitis.
The Spaniard would have been the defending champion after his dramatic victory over Federer in that 2008 final and he is desperate to regain the title.
Even the prospect of dropping to second seed in deference to Federer’s phenomenal record at Wimbledon doesn’t concern Nadal.
“I will go to Wimbledon with very, very good motivation,” he said. “If I am number one or number two won’t affect anything. If I am number three seed that is going to be a surprise for me!”