Pushing 39, taking a year off - is the end of Roger Federer's career nigh?

There comes a time in every elite athlete’s life when the body starts to feel like a bit of a wreck, unable to obey the mind and meet the standards it had once set for itself
And so it begins. The prattle about how all good — in this case, great — things must come to an end; the talk of slow decay and the colossal void that will be left behind; the dawning of the realisation that even he, the great Roger Federer, a specimen belonging to some empyrean space only he has ever roamed, may finally have to confront his own sporting mortality. 

There comes a time in every elite athlete’s life when the body starts to feel like a bit of a wreck, unable to obey the mind and meet the standards it had once set for itself. The bones creak and the muscles ache, often setting off a helplessness that mostly culminates in surrender — the feeling of struggling to do what you once did with relative ease is, perhaps, the worst of all for any athlete. Some embrace it, others fight it, but very few ever come back from it.

Federer, of course, has come back from it once. In 2017, he won the Australian Open only months after surgery on his left knee, an improbable renaissance that saw him go on to claim Wimbledon and then successfully defend his title at the Australian Open the following season. His win at Melbourne Park in 2018 took his major tally to 20. He hasn’t added to it since.

Federer’s latest announcement that he will sit out the rest of the season to recover from a surgical procedure on his right knee is perhaps further confirmation that that haul is likely to stay put. The Swiss will turn 39 in August; no man has ever won a major at that age. Ken Rosewall, at 37 years and 62 days, holds the record for the oldest men’s singles player to go all the way in a Grand Slam — the 1972 Australian Open — during the Open era. For now, Federer looks unlikely to better that.

Writing off a player who lost a close final at Wimbledon last year and reached the semi-finals in Melbourne in January may seem preposterous on the face of it, but makes perfect sense when seen in the context of Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, the top two in the world who continue to improve and find ways to defy opponents and stretch time.

There is obviously an argument to be made that Federer’s scant reliance on pure physicality down the years should, ideally at least, enhance his longevity. It’s a fair point: for years, Federer, as opposed to the robotic consistency of Djokovic and the implacable power of Nadal, was seen as someone playing an entirely different sport, conjuring up outrageous angles and dictating points through an unrivalled, exquisite understanding of match play — a bit like an old master refusing to give up his sword even as others around him had graduated to assault rifles.

But even then, a lot of Federer’s success has been down to his footwork: light, graceful strides that have allowed him to, for instance, take the ball early against Nadal, or occasionally shut out Djokovic by mixing his strokes up. By employing instinct and reacting faster than his opponents, Federer, over the last two decades, seized control of what matters most in tennis: time.

With slowing reflexes and a dodgy knee, all that becomes sufficiently difficult, if not outright impossible. With his movement hindered, Federer can sometimes come across as a 
sorry mess, often overextending and finding himself off-balance, which then contributes 
to his shambolic, error-prone groundstrokes. 

All of this is amplified against Djokovic and Nadal, whose sheer consistency in ball-striking is something that Federer has struggled against in the past. His recent victories against the two have mainly been possible due to his taking time away from them, and keeping the points short. Moreover, it’s worth mentioning that his time away from tennis in 2016 lasted some six months; on this occasion, he’ll be gone for almost a year.

At which point, you can’t help but wonder: why carry on at all? What more can there possibly be to achieve? Why not retreat into the background and reflect on a breathtaking career? Why not spend more time with the kids?

All of which may only seem fair to ask, but we also sometimes tend to forget how much of a fans’ player Federer actually is, someone who takes his job of entertainer so seriously that spectators over the past few years have looked for clues in his post-tournament speeches to gauge if he’ll be back at the same competition the following year. 

He never disappoints, always striking a note of optimism, mostly suggesting that this is not the last time they’ll be seeing him. In his statement earlier month, he sounded buoyant as usual: “I will be missing my fans and the tour dearly but I will look forward to seeing everyone back on tour at the start of the 2021 season.”

It’s almost as if Federer clandestinely acknowledges that without him, men’s tennis, in the short term at least, will fall apart. Deep down, he realises, without ever admitting it, that he is the glue that holds everything together, the lubricant that keeps the wheels moving and the crowds cheering. It’s as if he deems it his responsibility to keep on going as long as he can, even if that means pushing himself to the absolute brink physically, or getting embarrassed in the odd semi-final or final of a big tournament.

In any case, the very thought of Federer walking into the sunset is massively disconcerting. Weren’t his luminous talents supposed to be timeless? Wasn’t he supposed to be the gift that keeps on giving, and giving? They say you can’t stop time, but if someone can slow the clock, it’s Federer, not necessarily for his own good, but for everyone else watching.

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