Winning 30 fewer matches in 2007 than in 2006 caused David Nalbandian's ranking to plummet from 3 to 25 before his heroics in Madrid and, now, Paris. The effect of a 29 match deficit on Roger Federer? Increased confidence. An in-form Djokovic and a healthy Nadal may temporarily be a fraction behind but the biggest challenge to Federer's dominance in the coming year could very well be his own body. A glance:
2005: 81 - 4
2006: 92 - 5
2007: 63 - 8
While this lighter schedule, due in part to tweaked Roland Garros preparation, has led to tour losses at the hands of Filippo Volandri and the resurgent Nalbandian the newly minted gut check mettle Federer has displayed at the finish line of this year's Grand Slams (a straight sets demolition of in-form Fernando Gonzalez and pressure cooker performances against Nadal and Djokovic) leaves little doubt that the reigns of tennis will have to be wrung from his grip. For the multitude of theories regarding the progeny of the shot-making "string" generation perhaps what has been most impressive about Federer has been his ability to make the most of his talent, from the first time he realized he was able to win Grand Slams to now managing the physical effects of being an elder tennis statesman. Don't believe me? At 26 Federer now has more career ATP wins than any other active player, recently surpassing veteran of veterans Carlos Moya. Horse, meet cart.
Yet the significant drop in numbers is growing evidence of the inability of any calibre of champion to maintain a rigorous year round schedule throughout their careers. Take Venus Williams who first competed in the Year End Championships in 1998 but has only done so once since; this year's withdrawal guarantees that she will now be at least six years removed from her last appearance, a first set semifinal retirement against Kim Clijsters. And before 2007 Serena had competed in all 4 Grand Slams in only two separate calendar years and her relative inactivity and injuries have still been well documented. To almost any it is clear that the Williams sisters are hardly line and column tennis players but the lesson learnt from them is similar to that of Federer and even a Nalbandian: win when it matters and everything, including the ranking, will follow. For all her seemingly inability to master the complexities of scheduling the #5 next to Serena's name lends more credibility to the current points system than Larry Scott ever will. But more than anything she and her sister's Grand Slam success speaks for itself.
A brief glance at the bio of the WTA's version of the Fed, Justine Henin, and the importance of picking your spots becomes even more apparent. Both Justine and Roger have lost just one Grand Slam match this year and though 3 titles is obviously preferable to 2 a run of 7 finals in her last 8 completed Slams (with a 44-5 record) and an overall record of 118-12 in that same span is as close to Hercu-Feder-lean as possible, without actually donning the cream blazer. All of this after being one of the staunchest supporters of the career-dampener that is overplaying. Her now retired compatriot Clijsters never learnt the lesson that Henin now credits with her resurgence, what unestablished champions like Davydenko and Jankovic will have to rectify in order to peak when it matters most.
But all of this is almost hyperbolic in its simplicity when describing what Federer has been able to accomplish because all of his winning often overshadows how infrequently he loses when he brings his entire being to the fray. Despite a few extra unsuccessful attempts at Masters Series glory this year Federer still has only four career losses at each the US Open and Wimbledon and only five overall at the Australian (though that number does almost double to 9 when the French is considered). He's gone down fewer times at the Year End Championships than at the Olympics and hasn't lost more than 1 grand slam match per year in 3 of the last 4.
So, what's more likely: The rest of the field beats the best at their best or the physical and scheduling grind of the Tour robs the established champions of their crowns? With the 2012 Olympics as the likely cut offs for Roger, Serena, Justine and Venus all this tennis fan hopes for are a few more royal challenges to the throne. Now I remember why I can't wait for 2008. Until then the rankings game and year end galas will tide me over.