This is how time relentlessly erodes expectation: Seven-time Wimbledon champion Roger Federer said he felt more pressure playing in Germany this past week than when he stepped onto the lush lawns of the All England Club.
"It's an interesting period because I have my title to defend here, and at Wimbledon I don't have anything to defend," Federer said before the Halle event. "But I have to prove myself somehow. So actually it's the wrong way around for me. Usually the pressure in Wimbledon is much bigger because of the points and because you want to play well. But this year, I might go to Wimbledon a bit more relaxed."
The man many among the tennis intelligentsia feel is the greatest player of all time is sweating a little ATP World Tour 250 event on grass? Consider that it was the only tournament he won last year and -- he needn't have worried -- again this year with a victory over Alejandro Falla in the final. That's the through-the-looking-glass world in which the 32-year-old father of four lives these days.
Federer has won 17 Grand Slam singles titles, but there is a growing feeling that he might be done. However, this edition of Wimbledon, which opens Monday, represents Federer's best chance to add to that number, according to a broad consensus of experts canvassed at the French Open.
Grass, for a variety of reasons, is his favorite surface and the one that rewards his many talents more than any other. With his 33rd birthday looming only seven weeks away, the window is closing. But has that ship sailed?
Two weeks ago, analysts Brad Gilbert and Mary Joe Fernandez sat in ESPN's production office at Roland Garros and watched the women's French Open semifinal between eventual champion Maria Sharapova and Eugenie Bouchard. The network had already wrapped up its coverage, and the atmosphere was relaxed. Gilbert, the former coach of Andre Agassi, Andy Roddick and Andy Murray, and Fernandez, the U.S. Fed Cup coach and doubles winner with Lindsay Davenport earlier in the day, discussed Federer's chances.
"The window is closing, but it's not shut," said Fernandez, who is married to Tony Godsick, Federer's agent. "Of course, he had the dream draw last year and lost to [Sergiy] Stakhovsky in the second round."
Gilbert thinks age is overrated. Federer, he pointed out, was challenged by a 35-year-old Agassi in the 2005 US Open final.
"It was a tough match," Gilbert said. "I'll bet he hasn't forgotten that. And Fed is in way better shape than Andre was. I would say for Roger to win Wimbledon, he needs a little bit of help. It's not impossible, but beating Rafa and Djoker in the semis and finals is a big, big ask. If Rafa loses early again -- like he has a few times -- and he's in Roger's section, then all of a sudden I could see it a little more clearly."
Although Federer is the second most successful clay-court player of his generation, he has only one Roland Garros title. This year, he was knocked out in the fourth round by eventual semifinalist Ernests Gulbis.
"Mentally, I have already switched to the grass, to be quite honest," Federer said in his press conference after that match. "For me, it's like, 'OK, clay-court season was fun, but we are moving on.' Clay doesn't need me anymore -- I got flushed out here."