Tramlines

The beginning of the end for the artful Roger?

"I need a holiday badly. I'm wounded, tired, and exhausted and need some time off right now and see where I go from here. Nothing has been decided for the rest of year, even though there is a plan in place, that plan might change. I need to go back to the drawing board to see what's important." - 17-times Grand Slam winner Roger Federer

One of the key tenets of bruising, individual sporting competition is that you never let your opponent know you are hurt: the impact of an injury is consistently marginalised to avoid displaying a weakness that could be exploited at the elite level of professional sport. That is why Federer's willingness to admit that he is "wounded" was quite so alarming when he spoke into a microphone and set tongues wagging following a Davis Cup triumph over Netherlands on Sunday.

Of course, his decision to take a break does coincide with a fallow period in the tennis calendar, with no Grand Slam until January and the ATP World Tour finals some 48 days away. Even if he misses tours to Shanghai, Beijing and Tokyo he could yet ease himself back into action with his home-town tournament in Basel and the Paris Masters on the horizon prior to competing in London.

But it is the tone of the comments that provoke such unease amongst tennis fans. Many on our pages are already speculating that retirement could be the next natural step. There is no evidence for that whatsoever. But just a week after Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic treated the world to one of the most absorbing and physically exhausting Grand Slam finals in recent memory, there is something concerning in an admittance from the game's all-time great that his body is suffering.

It hurts more because Federer's return to the world number one ranking following a glorious seventh victory at Wimbledon has been one of tennis's enduring stories in a brilliant year that has seen the sport's Majors spread evenly across the undisputed big four in the men's game.

That stylish, single-minded defeat of a tearful Murray at SW19 - brutally crushing the hopes of the British public in the process - was Federer's first Major win in over two years and only his second final in 10 attempts in Grand Slam competition.

We were told that this was Federer back to his best, and it certainly catapulted him to the world number one spot which he has now occupied for a record 296 weeks. But events since have suggested that golden fortnight in Wimbledon could have been an all-too fleeting reacquaintance with pre-eminence. Certainly, he has faded since.

The warning signs were evident in the final of the Olympics. Brutally dismantled by Murray - who himself was inspired by the flush of Team GB euphoria - Federer lost 6-2 6-1 6-4. At one point, he went a solid hour without winning as much as a single game.

At the US Open, he failed to reach the semi-finals for the first time since 2003, when instead of being a 17-times Grand Slam champion who had just collected his seventh Wimbledon title only a few months before, Federer appeared vulnerable.  Tomas Berdych, who had gone out of both Wimbledon and the Olympics in the first round, exercised his superior power to muscle Federer off the court.

It was as though Federer, who between 2004 and 2006 looked nigh-on unbeatable away from the clay of Paris, felt unable to control his own destiny on the court. Just as against Murray in the Olympics - and indeed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at Wimbledon last summer - he had no answer. As he said following the Flushing Meadows defeat: "So many moments I thought, 'Man, it's just not happening for me.' It was just a very disappointing match."

Murray has since joined the ranks of Grand Slam champions of course, but Federer doesn't do defeats to Berdych and Tsonga. Not in Grand Slams. It just doesn't happen. Or at least it didn't.

At 31, Federer is no longer at an age where the onset of time burnishes him with greater ability; instead it extracts durability. Professionally, he is in a period of decline; we all know that. Consistency becomes like an elusive butterfly. It is  why it made his wonderful win at Wimbledon so special.

This is not the end of Roger Federer, but it could be a major signpost of his gradual decline from the main stage.

So what does this mean for tennis? Well, with Federer set to take a break and Nadal still combating knee injuries for an as yet undetermined period, the stage appears clear, initially at least, for Djokovic and Murray to rejoin the titanic battle they engaged in last week in New York.

That gladiatorial contest at Flushing Meadows showcased the ultra-physical dimension of elite tennis. Watching on from the sidelines, the wounded Federer must have winced.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "I was delighted to meet Andy and to be able to present him with his official Royal Mail Stamp for his medal winning success at the London Olympics. Scotland is very, very lucky to have Andy Murray, whose legendary status is now secured for all time, and his triumphs at both the Olympics and at the US Open will act as a spur for future generations of Scots to emulate his success." - No pressure, Andy. Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond just places the sporting hopes and dreams of a nation on his shoulders for generations to come.

PICTURE OF THE WEEK: After etching his name into British tennis history forever with a win at Flushing Meadows, Andy Murray gets an even bigger accolade in the form of his golden postbox in Dunblane, awarded for his Olympic triumph. And to think they once called him the nearly man.