Federer's best now not worthy of his greatness

Hand it to Billy Shakespeare. The guy really knew his stuff.

He once said, I assume between taming shrews and conjuring up how a prince might exact revenge on his uncle, that no legacy is so rich as honesty.

It makes you wonder what Roger Federer might be thinking today.

Is he being honest with himself?

Has he earned the right not to be?

I watch him play tennis now and think of Willie Mays stumbling around a baseball field, or Brett Favre with gray hair sending inappropriate texts, or Michael Jordan wearing a Wizards jersey.

(Well, maybe not Favre, because that guy ended up being a real creep.)

I’m not to the point of thinking Muhammad Ali fighting exhibitions against Antonio Inoki or Jerry Rice retiring during training camp with the Broncos, but you get the point.

Think level of esteem and how high you hold certain athletes. Federer is my favorite player of all time, the one I admired most, the one I felt owned the most talent, easily one of the greatest sportsmen in history.

It hurts to see him compete now.

His play was once described as a religious experience, so majestic at times that it was almost impossible to believe. He has won 17 Grand Slam titles, more than anyone. There has never been anyone like him on a grass surface.

It has all disappeared.

The invincibility is, well, invisible.

He is 32 and, while that’s not old for a baker or doctor or sportswriter, it becomes tougher and tougher for an athlete the stature of Federer to summon his inner-dominance that set him apart for so long.

It arrives so suddenly. You never see it coming. He is the oldest player ranked among the world’s Top 10. Age happens.

Fourteen months ago, Federer was winning his seventh Wimbledon title. He returned this year and lost in the second round to someone named Sergiy Stakhovsky, which sounded more like a Ukrainian folk song than any legitimate Grand Slam opponent.

This week, in the fourth round of the U.S. Open, Federer was sent home in straight sets by Tommy Robredo, a guy Roger used to beat like you might a dusty pillow when arriving at a vacation home.

But the game has changed. Jimmy Connors isn’t barging through any locker room doors. Guys don’t retire at 44 now. Guys barely get to 35 before walking away. Conditioning is better. Equipment.

Bigger. Faster. Stronger. It’s the same in tennis as any sport.

Federer has back issues. More pressing, those stars ahead of him in the rankings, names such as Djokovic and Nadal and Murray, are all younger and still very much in the prime of their careers.

They’re just better now, is all.

“The problem for Federer right now is that the aura is a little bit less than it’s been,” former pro Jim Courier said on the Tennis Channel this week. “And that makes him vulnerable at the beginning of matches. He used to come onto the court, and he was already up a break. Now players feel like there’s a real opportunity.”

Sounds like a certain golfer who likes to wear red on Sunday.

If this is the final scene for Federer, I’d rather not partake. It’s like having Tom Hanks survive a plane crash, make a volleyball his best friend, take three hours on screen to escape from an island and return home to discover his girlfriend married the dentist.

Bad ending, man.

Federer made 36 straight Grand Slam quarterfinals. He has now missed the last two and in 2013 won’t make a final for the first time in 10 years. The older our favorite athletes get, the more forehands that sail long, the more we discover another reason to face our own mortality.

We grow old with them and the feeling stinks.

I’ve never liked the idea of the best of the best having to reinvent themselves to remain relevant. I don’t want to witness a Federer who has to be someone he’s not merely to stay in a game no one has played better. His resume is one that demands he retire on his own terms and at the time he feels is best, but that doesn’t mean those of us who for so long marveled at his mastery should accept a lesser version.

He is ranked seventh in the world today. For most, that’s an unrealistic goal never to be part of one’s career.

But this is Roger Federer. The. Best. Ever.

We shouldn’t have to see him and think about Rickey Henderson stealing bases for the Newark Bears of the International League or Emmitt Smith taking handoffs for the Arizona Cardinals.

Federer’s legacy remains as profound as ever.

But this is also the time for honesty. I hope he has another run in him. I’m sure he believes so.

The hard part will be continuing to watch it.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.