Perhaps for the first time since Roger Federer surpassed Pete Sampras's Grand Slam titles record, the Switzerland native will enter a major tournament (this November's Barclays ATP World Tour Finals) with no clear goal in mind, no clear point to prove and perhaps, most importantly, with no recourse to disappointment if things don't go his way.
For a man whose incredible legacy was mercilessly and relentlessly forged with the steely, uncompromising resolve of an entity not unlike a machine, 2012, much like one or two of the last three years, has been markedly uneven.
Federer's year began in Doha with him pulling out of his semifinal match with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
Looking back at it now, it was in fact really the start of a series of peaks, troughs and Pyrrhic victories—the peak being that that withdrawal was only the second time in his career (996 matches at the time) that he left in the middle of a tournament due to injury and the trough being that he actually pulled out—where in the past there had been remarkable consistency.
It continued at the Australian Open where Federer defeated Juan Martin Del Potro at the quarter final stage in his 1000th match, only to lose the very next match, the 1001st, which, if only for its symbolism, might have signified the start of another dominant streak to Rafael Nadal, his age-old nemesis.
Later in March, at the ATP World Tour Masters 1000 event in Indian Wells, Federer did what he couldn't do at the Australian Open, defeating both Del Potro and Nadal on the way to his first title of the season. However, in Miami just a few weeks later, he lost his third-round match to the now-retired Andy Roddick. It was only the third time he'd lost to Roddick in 24 previous meetings, and the first time he'd lost to him since the same tournament in 2008.
Federer then went on to win the controversial ATP World Tour Masters 1000 Madrid title in the European clay court swing before losing to Novak Djokovic in the semi-finals of both the Rome equivalent to that tournament and the French Open.
In what was then a shock to most observers, Federer finished runner-up to World No. 87 Tommy Haas in the Wimbledon warm-up event in Halle. He later made amends by going on to defeat Djokovic and Andy Murray at Wimbledon to claim his 17th Grand Slam title.
He immediately regained the World No. 1 ranking and without delay broke Sampras's record number of weeks at the number one ranking.
It seemed like he would ride this peak into the Olympics, which were also held in Wimbledon a few weeks later—Federer's aim was to win the Olympic Singles gold medal that had so far eluded him—but he came short, losing to Murray in the gold medal match in a reverse of the Wimbledon final.
He rebounded in August to win his 21st ATP World Tour Masters 1000 title in Cincinnati and equal Nadal's record in the same, but only made it as far as the quarter-finals of the US Open.
With the race for the year-end number one spot heating up, Federer needed no less than a win in Basel and Paris to keep his hopes in that regard alive. However, rather than fight, he ceded the contest to Djokovic by opting not to play in Paris and subsequently losing in the Basel final to Del Potro.
So here we are, just days before the last major tournament of 2012. What's next for Federer?
Some may say that he's lost his drive and will make the case that the absence of his usually razor-sharp late-season form is proof of it. Others will point out that he's earned the luxury of picking his battles.
Either way, the facts are that Federer has achieved all his goals that we know of and his legacy is set in stone. Adding a 17th Grand Slam title was not necessary; it was really just a means to an end (the No. 1 ranking) and it has only added to what is perhaps now an unbeatable record.
It is then a little saddening that there is nothing realistically left for him to play for. How that will translate into future performances remains to be seen.
When the time comes that his tennis numbers are tallied up, it'll be a sure victory for him, no doubt in my mind. But much like 2012, what's to say it won't be Pyrrhic but the opposite.
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