Roger Federer's loss to Juan Martin del Potro in the final of the BNP Paribas Open last Sunday, in which he squandered three match points, was a reminder that, appearances to the contrary, the world No. 1 is actually mortal. But even though the match ended with a rare loss for Federer (his first of the year) the two-week tournament in Indian Wells, California, mainly served to underscore a key point about the biology defying renaissance that the 36-year-old is enjoying: When it comes to durability, it turns out he is pretty much unique.
While Federer was making a second consecutive run to the Indian Wells final, Novak Djokovic lasted just one round in the California desert, losing his opener to qualifier Taro Daniel 7-6 (7), 4-6, 6-1. If Federer's loss to del Potro was heartbreaking, Djokovic's loss to Daniel was just ugly and baffling. By the end, the 12-time major winner could barely keep the ball between the lines.
It was Djokovic's first appearance since the Australian Open, which in turn was his first tournament back from an elbow injury that forced him to cut short his 2017 season by five months. Djokovic made it to the fourth round in Melbourne. To state the obvious, Indian Wells was not a step forward. He is now playing the Miami Open, where he will face either Mischa Zverev or Benoit Paire.
Perhaps Florida is where he will finally recapture his form, but based on what we've seen so far, time off has not done for Djokovic what it did for Federer.
Federer, as you no doubt recall, was forced to sit out the second half of the 2016 season on account of a knee injury. The hiatus gave him time to heal and rest, and also to retool his backhand. The time off paid instant dividends when he returned to action and promptly won the 2017 Australian, his first major in five years.
His opponent in the final in Melbourne was his longtime rival and Grand Slam tormentor Rafael Nadal, who was also returning from a prolonged break; he had cut short his 2016 season because of a wrist injury.
The fact that the two most rested players in the men's draw reached the final in Melbourne did not go unnoticed in the locker room. It suddenly dawned on everyone that time off, whether by choice or out of necessity, could be a really good thing, allowing the body to recover and possibly reviving a flagging career or taking a great one to even greater heights.
Confirmation of this seemed to come when Federer, after winning the Australian, swept Indian Wells and Miami and then divvied up the year's remaining majors with Nadal, the Spaniard claiming a record 10th French Open and his third US Open. Federer captured a record eighth Wimbledon crown.
While Federer and Nadal were dominating once more, their biggest rivals decided to follow the examples they had set. Djokovic, Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka and Kei Nishikori all sat out the US Open and missed the entire fall season. All had medical reasons for doing so. Djokovic had the elbow problem, Murray was dealing with a hip injury, Wawrinka needed knee surgery and Nishikori had a torn tendon in his wrist.
All were also at the age when tennis bodies begin to give out. Murray, Djokovic and Wawrinka are all over 30, and Nishikori is in his late 20s. While they were involuntarily sidelined, they no doubt figured that what worked so well for Federer and Nadal would work for them, too.
Not so. Murray ended up having surgery and won't be back until late spring at the earliest. Wawrinka, after a brief return, is sidelined again because of his knee. Nishikori skipped the Australian to give his wrist more time to strengthen and sat out Indian Wells. So did Nadal, who after his spectacular 2017 is hobbled once again by an injury, this time to his leg, a continuation of the boom-and-bust cycle that has characterized his career.
And then there is Djokovic. It is certainly possible that he will win more majors and get back to No. 1. Despite Djokovic's baffling performance in Indian Wells, Federer believes he will eventually be back atop the sport. "Look, still such early stages for Novak coming back," Federer told reporters. "He's only going to get better from here."
But it's worth recalling that Djokovic went into a slump long before his elbow sidelined him. He won the French in 2016, and then lost his game somewhere between Paris and London and has been struggling to find it ever since. And while all sorts of explanations have been offered for his downward spiral, the most obvious one -- age -- has been ignored or discounted. With players maturing later and sticking around longer, it has become an article of faith that the game's aging curve has changed, and that 30 is the new 25 or 23 or 20.
The unprecedented success Federer is enjoying in his mid-30s has reinforced this idea. But tennis is tough on the body; the pro game has never been more physically demanding, and it is entirely possible that the years and all those hard yards are catching up with Fed's top rivals.
What seems undeniable at this point is that Federer is uniquely durable and that he benefitted from time off more than anyone else because he was more durable to begin with. Whether it is his natural elasticity (such loose limbs), his balletic efficiency, his training methods, his judicious scheduling or (more likely) some combination of all these things, Federer is sui generis.
In winning multiple majors after the age of 35 and reclaiming the No. 1 ranking, he has not redefined what's possible for tennis players; he has only demonstrated what's possible for Roger Federer, which -- as with almost all things Federer -- is on a different plane from everyone else.