Roger Federer entered the U.S. Open with his lowest seeding since 2002, hitting fewer aces and struggling with service returns as he tries to add to the lone Grand Slam championship he has won in the past 3 1/2 years.
Federer’s ace production in major tennis tournaments has declined to 7.7 percent of serves this year from 12.4 percent in 2009. Opponents have aced him on 8.1 percent of serves this year, up from 4.7 percent in 2011’s majors, according to data compiled by Bloomberg Sports.
After winning an unmatched 17 men’s Grand Slam singles titles and spending an unprecedented 302 weeks as the world’s No. 1 player, the 32-year-old Swiss is trying to match Andre Agassi’s Australian Open feat in 2003, when he became the oldest man to win a major in 40 years. He also was 32.
“When you get into your 30s, tennis takes its toll and physically starts to slow you down,” said John McEnroe, who was 25 when he won the last of his seven Grand Slam singles titles at the 1984 U.S. Open. “There comes a point, even as great as Roger has been for so many years, that it catches up to you a little bit.”
Federer served 12 aces today while winning his first-round match 6-3, 6-2, 7-5 against Grega Zemlja of Slovenia, who is ranked 62nd in the world. The match, set for last night, was delayed a day by rain. He next plays 48th-ranked Carlos Berlocq of Argentina.
Federer’s recent struggles in the four annual majors -- the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open -- also can be tracked with his returns against the top three-ranked players in the world: Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray.
He has won 29.9 percent of first-serve returns and 44.6 percent of second-serve returns against them in Grand Slams since the 2010 Australian Open. From 2003 Wimbledon to the 2010 Australian Open, it was 32 percent on first-serve returns and 48.6 percent on second serves, Bloomberg Sports data show.
“Possibly he’s slowed down a little bit, the balance and the movement are not quite as Nureyev-like as they were in the past,” McEnroe said in an ESPN conference call. “So he’s reaching for more balls and therefore mis-hitting more shots.”
That has translated into a rough summer for Federer, who is seeded seventh in this year’s Open -- the lowest since he was No. 13 in 2002.
Federer’s record run of 36 straight Grand Slam quarterfinal appearances ended in late June with a second-round Wimbledon loss to 116th-ranked Sergiy Stakhovsky.
Then, while most players moved to North American hard courts to prepare for the U.S. Open, Federer experimented with a larger racket at European clay-court tournaments. He lost in the semifinals in Hamburg, Germany, to 114th-ranked Federico Delbonis and in his first match in Gstaad, Switzerland, to No. 55 Daniel Brands, and returned to his old racket.
Federer then dropped out of a hard-court tournament in Montreal with back problems. Former player Pam Shriver, who like Federer is the parent of young twins, said having children puts extra physical as well as emotional demands on an athlete. Federer’s daughters are 4 years old.
“No other tennis player at the top has kids, much less twins, so he’s got it coming at him from two significant angles,” Shriver said in a phone interview. “When you’re a parent, you spend an enormous amount of time down low with them. The darndest things can tweak your back, like reaching down for a Lego.”
Federer won two matches in Cincinnati in mid-August before losing in the quarterfinals to Nadal and said that three-set defeat showed he was heading in the right direction.
“I know my body’s fine and my mind’s OK, so that’s two good things looking ahead,” Federer said in a news conference after the loss. “So rankings, at this point anyway, are not what leads me. It’s about getting my game back on track, and that’s what I’m doing well.”
Even with his declining game, Federer has almost $78 million in career winnings and Sports Illustrated estimated his 2012 endorsement earnings at $36 million. His website lists sponsorship deals with companies including Credit Suisse Group AG, Daimler AG’s Mercedes-Benz, Nike Inc. and Rolex Group.
A higher percentage of U.S. consumers know him -- 38 percent -- than Nadal (26 percent), Murray (20 percent) or Djokovic (19), according to Henry Schafer, executive vice president of Q Scores, which measure consumer appeal.
Federer has 77 career championships and a 910-209 mark in singles. His reign at No. 1 included a record 237-week run from Feb. 2, 2004, until Aug. 18, 2008.
Since the 2010 Australian Open, Federer is 3-7 against Djokovic, Nadal and Murray at majors. From 2003 Wimbledon to then, he was 8-7 against them.
“Seeing Roger struggling a little bit is surprising, but he’s been so good for so long,” Pete Sampras, who won 14 Grand Slam singles titles, said this month at a news conference in Toronto. “It just comes down to confidence. When Roger’s playing well, he can play with a broomstick. He’s that good.”
Sampras, one of Federer’s boyhood heroes, played his last match -- winning the 2002 U.S. Open -- less than a month after he turned 31.
“My career is long, over 1,000-some matches,” Federer told reporters in Cincinnati. “I’ve doubted myself in the past. I know where I have to go, so at least I know where I am, and I know what I need to work on.”