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Roger Federer's slide to No 3 in the world rankings still has him higher than 6,917,682,931other people on Earth.
Roger Federer's slide to No 3 in the world rankings still has him higher than 6,917,682,931other people on Earth.

Decline is no joke to Federer

Sense of humour, ranking and patience are on the slide for the former world No 1 as Roger Federer's age now becomes a prickly issue.

As the tennis season thickens toward Paris and Wimbledon and New York, it might behove Roger Federer to hire a joke writer.

That person could write lines for him to spruce up the press conferences that went dour as Federer's ranking tumbled to No 3.

That person might help him point out in some facetious way that among the 6,917,682,934 people reported to be residing on Earth as of midday yesterday, in tennis Federer ranked ahead of 6,917,682,931 while behind only two.

He might observe that this should be a cause for merriment, and the only reason people view the No 3 as wanting is that Federer spent such a considerable chunk of their lives residing at No 1, plus another chunk of time at No 2.

You have to be some kind of incredible for people to swoon when you plummet all the way to No 3, but having Federer slide so decisively behind the surging No 2 Novak Djokovic has thrown off people's equilibrium and depressed at least several press conferences.

It all hit rock-bottom in Miami in early April when Federer fielded a thoughtful question about latter years by answering: "Biggest hassle is being asked all the time these questions."

After so much ambassadorship through the years, it foretold a future with unfitting pockets of grumpiness.

In between the testy, "I don't know how many times I need to answer until I just say I'm not going to answer it anymore," and the huffy, "Up to you how many times I will have to answer the question until I'm sick and tired of it," and the defiant, "But I know that I can do more things in the game," and the tetchy, "I don't feel like I'm 35 like you guys make me sound I am," the whole scene had become insufficiently lighthearted.

The questions themselves, you could view as absurd - or, not.

In that first sense, they do merit cringes and could bore the skin off an iguana, for here is a most predictable phase.

Federer has reached age 29. Sliding to No 3 hardly constitutes news and might even qualify as exceeding expectations.

Even after proving so majestic for so long, Federer did not expect to hold on to Nos 1 or even 2 until his 70s or even well into his 30s.

Why question somebody about the emphatically natural?

The particular question in Miami reflected this ethic as it carefully noted the twilight period of Pete Sampras, who held down the No 17 ranking when he went and won the 2002 US Open after "failing" to win the previous eight grand slams. It would not be crazy to reckon that by necessity Federer would don that career arc, his future major titles coming every now and then in occasional bursts amid general ageing.

Yet in Federer's fussiness lay the value of the questions, for even in their general lack of originality, they have wound up teaching something, yielding glimpses of a champion's thinking, and of Federer himself.

Most people would surmise that holding down No 1 for 285 weeks of life and winning 16 major titles would soften the sting of fading from such heights. But champions' brains do not work that way, and if they did it might be a hindrance.

These organs always resonate the word "more" even when more seems an awful lot. In this vein we might even pity them were it not for their bank balances.

And in Federer's particular case, while his rule always rated gorgeously autocratic on the court and multi-lingually diplomatic off, the hints piled up through the years that he came to adore his throne.

The tasteful white jackets at Wimbledon. The not-tasteful jacket after the 15th slam title, showing "15" and churned out from a shoe company's ample Department of Tackiness. The gentle but odd chastising of alleged doubters in New York in 2008. The admirable tears in Australia after the five-set loss to Rafael Nadal in the 2009 final.

It has been such a celestial run that it could be hard to have it cease even while normal to have it cease.

In 2011, the No 1 Nadal still holds three of the four slam trophies while the No 2 Djokovic, 32-0 this year, unmistakably aims to topple Nadal. From just beneath that ruckus this week in Rome, Federer branded it "important" - and even likely if he can win another grand slam - that he return to No 1.

In that uphill struggle and its attending questions will come the ache for some levity, especially the self-deprecating kind. He could always begin by deadpanning to an inquirer that at No 3, his feels as if his life has been such a failure.

cculpepper@thenational.ae

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