In July 2018, during times when rooms could still be safely filled with people, Roger Federer was at Wimbledon for a pre-tournament press conference as he prepared to defend his title. For half an hour he fielded questions in three languages from a packed room, but suddenly things took a left turn. An unfamiliar reporter was handed the microphone and without missing a beat, she opened her question with a simple, direct statement: “You look even more handsome than last year.”
As onlookers cackled and Federer responded with a timely injection of humour, that cringe-inducing moment felt as if it was a reflection of the way Federer is discussed in general. Even before he marked himself as one of the all-time greats, Federer took on a mythical status in the sporting world. He is the maestro. He is peRFect. He is often described as some otherworldly being. There are those interminable jokes from commentators about his inability to sweat, even when his headband is clearly soaked through. Such a comment from a professional journalist seemed as if it was a natural progression.
Detractors of Federer and some neutrals argue there is far too much fawning over him, while his fans would point out that a once-in-a-lifetime talent who has won so much and attracted so many fans to the game is worthy of that adulation. What is clear is that with so much of the focus on his effortless style and bottomless toolbox of shots, it often belies the many other qualities that make him great.
On Sunday night, Federer concluded his year by announcing he will not be competing at the Australian Open in February. After previously undergoing surgery for a torn meniscus in his left knee in 2016, this year Federer had two arthroscopic surgeries on his right knee. He did not recover satisfactorily from the first surgery in February, so he decided on a second attempt in June. He is now working his way back up to full intensity in Dubai and he will eventually decide on his first tournament back.
For much of his career, Federer’s evasion of injury has been a pillar of his game, allowing him to preserve his body and remain competitive for so long. Now the reality of being 39 years old with 1,513 ATP singles matches under his belt has arrived. Federer’s withdrawal means his injury layoff will last longer than a year. His mortality as a professional player has naturally been on his mind. “It is already clear that I am near the end of my career,” he said in July to the Swiss broadcaster SRF. “I can’t tell what’s in two years. That’s why I plan year after year. I’m still happy right now. But when the cogwheels no longer work, I stop.”
The most interesting aspect of these final years of Federer’s career has been what he is willing to do to keep those cogwheels turning. It has taken far more than just a wave of his magic wand. Eighteen months ago, he was so close to one of his great achievements, leading Novak Djokovic by double match point in the Wimbledon final before falling in a fifth-set tie-break.
For Federer, memories of that match should also include the 10 months of work it took to return to that spot. After defeats at Wimbledon and the US Open in 2018, his powers waning, Federer responded by adding more tournaments to his schedule. He spent a long winter with his head down, slowly grinding through uncertain patches of form. There were many ugly matches, balls thrashed in bursts of anger, and he was still searching for his level by the 2019 Australian Open. It was engrossing to see him resolutely work through his issues before he finally soared again.
The only sighting of Federer in 2020 came at the Australian Open after a shortened off-season. Despite never really finding his best, he dragged himself into the last four, engineering two breathless five-set escapes against John Millman and Tennys Sandgren. By the semi-final, his body was finished.
At any age, recovering from a serious injury is difficult. Surgery is physically painful and mentally draining. Rehabilitation is the height of tedium. The uncertainty of if and when it will be possible to return to competition can be suffocating enough as a 20-year-old, let alone in a brittle body after decades of competition. Since February, Federer will have had to navigate all of those emotions.
In that same Wimbledon press conference two and a half years ago, Federer was asked about Serena Williams’s comeback after her pregnancy. He noted his happiness at her decision to take the route back to sport after such a long time away. “Why not?” he said. “After everything she’s done, it would have been the perfect excuse and exit to say: ‘I’ve had it.’”
After two knee surgeries and a year away from tennis at 39 years old, 2020 produced the cleanest excuse and exit route for Federer to vanish into the night. Instead, he has not had it. He has been consistent and resolute in his determination to compete at the highest level again. Age eventually comes for us all, but he has impeded its effects by complementing his ability with grit, resolve and an enduring motivation that remains more than 22 years since his first professional match and so long since most of his contemporaries let go. In the end, that feels even more meaningful than his talent alone.