Tennis is no longer easy for Roger Federer.
There was a time when, in victory or defeat, there was an ease to his play that elevated the experience of watching the sport. In 2021, weeks away from his 40th birthday, it’s no longer easy on his body. After two knee surgeries and over a year in rehab, it’s no longer easy on his mind either. With an erratic and often error-prone game, it’s not easy on the audience anymore too.
At Wimbledon, his hallowed turf and the prime focus of his injury comeback, Federer made it look harder than ever before. The eight-time champion crashed out in the quarter-finals to 24-year-old Hubert Hurkacz 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-0. It was his first straight-sets defeat at the All England Club since 2002 and the first-ever bagel set (6-0) in 22 years.
But nobody thought it would be easy. Not after the injury he sustained ahead of the semi-final at 2020 Australian Open; not after needing a second knee surgery in the span of months; not after having to extend his rehab over a year. Federer has been honest about the gruelling work he put in to get off the crutches and back on the tennis court in the pandemic-hit year, all to be able to play the grass season and Wimbledon again. And yet he is still not at 100%.
Since his comeback in March, the 39-year-old has played 13 matches, winning nine. The first three losses were battles till the deciding set. At Wimbledon, he lost in straight sets to a first-time quarter-finalist, 15 years his junior.
There are two ways to look at this: For all the work he put in just to be able to compete, he suffered his heaviest-ever defeat at Wimbledon. Despite his visibly low level, he reached the quarter-final on the back of grit, craft and some luck. How we see a 6-0 loss in 2021 is all about perspective.
If his post-match press conference is anything to go by, Federer has this perspective. His media interaction was enlightening as he looked serene, if not upbeat, answering the many variations of the same question: Is this the end? He was candid about the future being uncertain at his age, but remained steadfast that the goal has always been to play and play more.
One of the final questions was if this loss is easier to digest. Good question, said the ever-polite Swiss, and explained how he felt both disappointed and relieved, his mental exhaustion and process of regrouping. It was a fascinating insight.
Not a question mark
Yes, he has lost in the quarter-final before, perhaps the most brutal being 2018 when the then defending champion went down to Kevin Anderson in five sets after having a match point in the third. It was straight sets against Hurkacz, but the end result is the same. He has been here before many times before. Then, a shock loss was a mere comma in the grand scheme of things. Now, it could very well be a full stop. But what it should not be is a question mark.
Given Federer’s history, a bagel set at Wimbledon feels seismic. But it shouldn’t be a surprise. Not at 39 years of age, 20 years after reaching his first-quarter-final beating Pete Sampras.
If anything, this should almost be seen as the first ‘bagel’ of this phase of Federer’s career. Not the end of an era but the constant fight against the march of time. An almost 40-year-old pro athlete will have bad days, weeks even, and be in unfamiliar situations when the body doesn’t match up to his skill. The key to what comes next would be treating this as the end of his comeback phase, which also came with a quarter-final run.
The eighth seed needed luck to get past his first opponent, as Adrian Mannarino retired hurt in the fifth set. But his next three matches – against Richard Gasquet, Cameron Norrie and Lorenzo Sonego – were solid wins built on the basic tenets of his game: serve and shot-making. These deserted him in the quarter-final, much like the third set of the Halle loss that visibly crushed his confidence. Between these two losses, it felt it was evident that it will no longer be easy-going for him on any surface.
Federer has been so transparently focussed on grass, withdrawing from the French Open fourth-round for it, that his time for evaluation begins only now that swing has ended. The questions will be tough: Is he mentally ready for the grind, and physically fit for it? Does he want to play for the joy of it or to compete for wins? Will he know better only after playing more regular matches? Is it a gamble he’s willing to take with travel restrictions? Is his body telling him that he’s nearing the end? As Andy Murray put it bluntly, is it worth it?
None of these questions are new, indeed some have been around for almost a decade. In 2011, when Federer failed to win a Grand Slam after eight straight years, the then 29-going-on-30-year-old was said to be on the decline. By 2013, around the age Sampras had retired, the obituaries came in earnest in the face of younger rivals such as Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. In 2019, when he lost the Wimbledon final after having two championship points, the questions over his ability became statements.
Yet in 2021, both Federer and the questions over his retirement are around the second week of a Grand Slam. This longevity, just like a straight-sets-bagel-loss at Wimbledon, is a surprise. Federer may not make tennis look as easy anymore, but watching him try to should be easy. It’s an unprecedented experience after all.
Respond to this article with a post
Share your perspective on this article with a post on ScrollStack, and send it to your followers.