When his back was to the wall, as it was for most of an intense and at times feisty semi-final at the Australian Open, the 17-times grand slam champion went for broke and occasionally pulled it off.
But in the end, the six years he was giving to Andy Murray weighed heavy on his legs and he was unable to sustain his aggression, going down 6-4 6-7 6-3 6-7 6-2 after exactly four hours.
"Andy was just a bit better today," Federer told reporters. "I think overall he created more chances than I did.
"I struggled to get into his service games time and again the way I usually do and then in the fifth set, he did well and was more aggressive."
It is now three years since Federer last won a grand slam title on a hard court and what may concern him most of all is that he was outplayed in every department.
Against the most attacking player in the men's game, U.S. Open champion Murray hit more aces, more winners, fewer unforced errors and broke serve six times to the Swiss's two.
That he managed to stretch the match to five sets, especially having gone the distance in the previous round, was testament to his mental strength and sheer desire to win.
But in the final set, where once he might have run through a mentally-scarred opponent, he was broken early, ran out of steam and in the end, was well beaten.
"I was down in the score, basically from the start," he said.
"Definitely it (felt) more like a chase. I was able to level it a couple of times.
"I think it was a tough match. I think I had my chances a little bit. But Andy was a bit better than I was tonight."
At 31, the simple truth is that on hard courts, especially in the cool conditions he faced on Friday, Federer is no longer able to hit through his opponents as easily as he once could.
Though he won plenty of trades from the baseline, he could not sustain his moments of brilliance for long enough to strike the fatal blow.
When he attacked the Murray second serve, he had success; when he went back into his shell, chipped back and let the Scot dictate the rallies, he struggled.
Federer had success serving out wide to the Murray forehand on the deuce court, but too often allowed himself to get sucked into backhand-to-backhand rallies that played to the third seed's strengths.
Having gone five sets with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the previous round, Federer said he was feeling the after-effects a little but refused to use it as an excuse.
"Obviously I wish I could have come in like Andy (having not lost a set)," he said. "(But) then again, he beat me fair and square tonight. No regrets from me."