A couple weeks after losing to Julien Benneteau in the Rotterdam quarterfinals, Roger Federer needed three sets to dispatch Malek Jaziri to begin his run in Dubai. It's a poor run of form that's rare for the 17-time Grand Slam champion, and he needs to end it before it becomes a trend.
The Dubai opener was the first meeting between Federer and the 29-year-old journeyman from Tunisia, but Jaziri is exactly the type of opponent the world's No. 2 player would normally defeat without facing a single pressure point.
Instead, Federer dropped the first set and needed to win two straight just to advance past the first round. He did exactly that, taking the next two sets 6-0, 6-2 to advance, but it was hardly the type of showing fans have come to expect from him.
It follows a loss to Benneteau, certainly a solid player but somebody Federer had beaten four out of five times before the latest defeat, in straight sets. When you put those results together, it's clear the Swiss sensation isn't playing up to his usual standards.
In the past, a couple lax matches wouldn't sound off any alarms. After all, when a player is winning major titles on a consistent basis, it's easy to overlook results at minor events like Rotterdam and Dubai. They are just helping to bide time under the clay-court season.
Things are changing for Federer, though. He's 31 and won just a single Grand Slam title over the past three years, dating back to the 2010 French Open. His lulls have become more common, so even a minor drop in form will attract attention.
A loss to Benneteau followed by an unexpectedly competitive match with Jaziri, a virtual unknown, certainly falls into that category.
The good news for Federer is that he rebounded to advance in Dubai. He has a favorable draw and should be able to make a deep run if he can elevate his level of play starting in the second round against the winner of Albert Montanes and Marcel Granollers.
It's another match, regardless of who wins the first-round battle, that Federer should win with ease. When he's doing well, he drops only a handful of games and reaches the third round. When he's struggling, suddenly things aren't so easy.
The real challenges should begin in Round 3. He's on a collision course with Janko Tipsarevic or Bernard Tomic. Both of those players are capable of giving even an in-form Federer a solid test, and either should show exactly where Federer stands right now.
It's important for Federer to start building some confidence before the clay-court portion of the season begins. The surface has been his least productive—at least in terms of performance at majors—throughout his career.
If he's not in top form on hard courts, it doesn't bode well for the switch to clay. He needs to get himself back on track so he can hit the ground running––or sliding, for clay––as the French Open buildup begins.
More likely than not, Federer's recent drop-off in play is nothing to worry about. But it's a storyline that's definitely worth watching for the rest of his stay in Dubai.