Two days before another dramatic US Open exit, Roger Federer was talking up the chances of him being competitive in the Grand Slams into his forties.
‘It’s not impossible,’ he had told Swiss media after thumping Belgian No 1 David Goffin in Sunday’s fourth round. ‘A few years ago I wouldn’t have thought it possible. But when you feel fully fit like I do right now, you think you can play for ever.’
Forty-eight hours later he was joining Novak Djokovic on this tournament’s scrapheap after being outlasted by the mercurial Grigor Dimitrov, and looking all of his 38 years. The five-set quarter-final defeat of the Swiss meant that when Rafael Nadal was due to play Diego Schwartzman last night, he was the old guard’s last line of defence.
It should not be overlooked that Federer has already enjoyed extra-ordinary longevity, and the whole sport has been grateful for that. Such is his global pulling power that tennis fears the day that sees him retire: when Federer starts sneezing the whole game may catch a cold.
From that perspective there will have been some relief to hear him talk about planning to play out a full schedule between now and the end of the year.
He had no doubt that he will feature later this month in Geneva at the Laver Cup, the Europe v The World team event promoted by himself and his management group, despite the stiff upper back that slightly hindered him towards the end of the match.
He did not dwell on that, and was not in the mood to assess if the defeats of himself and Djokovic had wider significance. ‘Not much,’ he replied, when asked if that was the case. ‘It’s just a missed opportunity, if you can get through, you have two days off after. I know people read into it, they think all that stuff.’
Yet the injury-impaired losses here of Djokovic, 32, and Federer, 38, may not be entirely unconnected. The possible link is the incredible Wimbledon final that they played out in July, which pushed them both to their physical and mental limits.
Matches like that take an increasing toll with age, and the effects will be felt at the end of the Northern Hemisphere summer, which is still the most important part of the tennis season.
It cannot be coincidence that Flushing Meadows has become a leaner hunting ground for Federer as he has headed deeper into his thirties. He has not won in New York since 2008 or progressed past the last eight since 2015.
Him falling short at the end of the summer is why one remarkable statistic endures in his rivalry with Nadal: of their 40 career meetings not one has ever taken place at the US Open. As they head into the twilight it would be no great surprise if this was to remain a blank.
Asked whether he could ever win another Slam, Federer replied that he did not have a crystal ball. Those close to him insist he has no idea when he might finish altogether, and he was quick to state it is business as usual for the rest of this year.
Djokovic said the same in terms of his plans after his abrupt retirement against Stan Wawrinka. The player we may end up seeing less of is Nadal, who is reducing his schedule due to his wedding taking place in October.
What will probably signal the eventual end for Federer is when he starts getting beaten on a consistent basis by players with average rankings. And at world No 78, technically Dimitrov fits that bill but the Bulgarian’s natural talent is undoubtedly that of a top-ten player.