At 32, Roger Federer very well may be finished winning Grand Slam tournaments, stuck at a record 17 while the likes of Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray claim their inheritance.
His last major title -- and his only one in the last 14 Slam events -- was the 2012 Wimbledon, and his No. 7 ranking is his lowest in 11 years. But, as he demonstrated again Thursday in a second-round straight-sets U.S. Open victory over Argentina's Carlos Berlocq, Federer still plays the prettiest tennis extant.
His precision, touch and chess-like maneuvering of opponents -- constantly shrinking their options -- somehow make even the best of his peers seem to be lumberjacks laboring mightily to clear great forests. Federer, by contrast, is the skilled craftsman fashioning shapeless logs into fine sculpture.
In the course of Thursday's 6-3, 6-2, 6-1 command performance, Federer allowed the 48th-ranked Berlocq only three break-point opportunities, and saved two of them. He stuck 37 winners to Berlocq's 17, pumping from a deep well of variety. Drop shots, angled volleys, line-seeking groundstrokes.
"I'm happy," Federer said. "I mean, it's one of those matches I expect myself to win. If possible, in straight sets, and gain confidence in the process. As we know, it might not just take one match but a few matches, and next thing you know, you're playing really, really good tennis and close to playing really great tennis.
"That's where I kind of am right now, where every match is really important to me."
He could be headed for a 32nd career duel with Nadal, his most troublesome rival, in the Open quarterfinals. Within the sport, there is a general sense that Federer's chances for an 18th major title have diminished considerably, but with an absolute hesitancy to dismiss him.
"It's not going to get easier," said Patrick McEnroe, head of the U.S. development program. "But I would never underestimate Federer or underestimate greatness in general."
Pete Sampras, who held the record for major titles (14) before Federer, recently was asked to weigh in on the question of best player in history and said, "It's just bar-stool talk. I just feel, for my generation, I was the guy and, I feel at my best, I was unbeatable.
"As was Roger. As was [Rod] Laver. I mean, Roger's numbers are incredible. For those number of years, he was unstoppable."
No longer? A general topic at all Slam events now is how the next generation has closed in on Federer, removed his cloak of invincibility. In Britain's Guardian newspaper, Kevin Mitchell wrote last week, "It is profoundly sad, unjust perhaps, that every Roger Federer press conference now resembles a reading of a will."
But Federer is not ready to cash in his chips. "So I've been around too long," he said. "Clearly, when I had my two girls" -- his twin daughters are now 4 -- "I wasn't sure how it was going to be after that.
"Was I going to be able to play the same schedule? Was my love for the game as big? Were we going to be able to cope with the whole thing?
"Managed it totally fine. I'm in a good spot right now."
Time marches on. He's just recovered from back problems and clearly is more vulnerable. Meanwhile, his tennis yesterday again was suitable for framing.