Men's singles: Humbled Federer faces fight of his life

Defending champion's rivals are lining up to deny him a place in the history books

The vultures are gathering, and not only in the media room. The debate among his fellow professionals about the severity or otherwise of Roger Federer's decline will be resolved over the next fortnight. Either the world No 1 wins a record sixth Wimbledon in succession or he is history of an-other sort. Cruel, sport, isn't it?

That the Federer of 2008 does not, so far, give the impression of being the supreme ruler of the men's game is not in dispute, except possibly in the Swiss giant's own corner, where he is in a clear state of denial about the severity of his slip from the summit. The statistics are hardlyon his side. Eight matches lost so far this year, more than in the years 2004-06 put together. Some of those defeats – to Mardy Fish at Indian Wells and Radek Stepanek in Rome – have to be classed as embarrassing.

Others, like the three losses to Rafael Nadal on clay and to Novak Djokovic in the Australian Open semi-finals, simply served to underline that the men's game now has a Big Three. Only two tournaments (Halle and a minor one in Estoril) are so far in the bag from a genius who lifted 16 titles in 2005, 12 in 2006 and eight last year. All this has to be put into perspective. Federer's decline is from the sort of summit the rest of them need oxygen tanks even to aspire towards, something readily acknowledged in the dressing rooms. Mario Ancic, who remains the last to beat Federer at Wimbledon, back in 2002, refutes all talk of Federer's white charger going lame.

Everyone else is, as you would expect, respectful of one of the greatest racket-wielders the game has ever seen, and his closest challengers – Nadal and Djokovic – choose their words carefully when entering the great Federer debate, without disguising a feeling that their time might be at hand. Here's Djokovic, the 21-year-old Serb whose recent progress has been as unstoppable as a radar-controlled missile: "Roger is no longer so dominant. He is losing more than he used to. Of course he comes into Wimbledon as favourite, but there are other players around now who believe they can beat him, and I am one of them.

"Suddenly he is a little bit worried. Suddenly there are new names winning major titles and believing more that they can win against the top players. Roger is still No 1, and though he has made good results this year they are not as good as the past four or five years, when he was reallydominant. And obviously he was mentally filled up from such a dominance. It's normal to have ups and downs, and he's feeling the pressure a little bit.

"I am not in a hurry to win Wimbledon. I think Federer needs to win one more time, so the pressure is on him, not me. If not this year, next year, is my attitude. Of course, I wouldn't complain if it was even 10 years.

"People are looking at me and Rafa as a threat to his number one place, but there is a long way to the end of the season. I have smaller goals for now; just to be consistent with results in the major events. After Wimbledon comes the US Open [he was runner-up in 2007], which is one of my favourite events and fav-ourite surfaces." In Nadal's case, his racket has been doing all the talking needed, and it is arguable whether Federer has yet recovered, indeed will ever get over, the humiliating four games he salvaged from the French Open final earlier this month. And to those who point out clay and grass are mightily different surfaces, there is the fact that Federer's opponent in the last two Wimbledon finals was that same muscled Mallorcan.

Last year Nadal came thrillingly close to unseating Federer in what John McEnroe insists was the finest men's final seen on Centre Court, better than his own five-setter with Bjorn Borg in 1980, by common consent Wimbledon's best ever.

In Andy Murray's opinion, Nadal has proved himself not only invincible on clay but one of the best grass-court players, with two Wimbledon finals and an Artois title. "So he deserves to be second favourite," said the Scot, who maintains full respect for the holder of the crown. "Roger has got better as he gets closer [to Wimbledon], but in the past few years his main challengers were young and still improving. Now they are better and it is going to be tougher for him." Federer has been keeping a low profile over the past week at the All England Club, apparently on the advice of his girlfriend, Mirka Vavrinec, who feels he is doing too much media work. He is not scheduled to speak about his title defence until later today, but in the meantime there is no shortage of former Wimbledon supermen to do so.

Pete Sampras, whose total of 14 Grand Slams, including seven Wimbledons, is still the mark for all to aim at, claims: "As great as Roger is, he's going to have his losses and bad days, but he hasn't lost his edge. If he loses a lot over the next few months and isn't contending, then maybe, but I don't see that happening. He's still the guy most likely to win the big ones."

Bjorn Borg, whose record of five straight Wimbledons would be eclipsed by a Federer triumph, was very wrong in tipping Federer to win Roland Garros, but when asked whether Nadal or Djokovic had the better chance of beating Federer at SW19, said: "If he survives the first two or three rounds, I pick Nadal to win it." Perhaps Borg still has raw memories of how he stumbled against McEnroe in pursuit of that elusive sixth Wimbledon.

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