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Saturday, July 31, 2021

‘I really don’t know’: With ageing body, Roger Federer uncertain of future

For a 39-year-old player returning to the tour after 14 months, after two knee surgeries and just eight matches under the belt, a Wimbledon quarter-final finish is not a bad result.

Written by Shahid Judge | Mumbai |
Updated: July 8, 2021 10:51:40 pm
Roger Federer, Roger Federer knee injury, Roger Federer tokyo olympics, Roger Federer withdrawal olympics, Roger Federer wimbledon injuryRoger Federer during a press conference after losing his quarter-final match against Hubert Hurkacz. (Reuters)

A packed crowd at Wimbledon’s Centre Court watched in awe and shock as they witnessed a side of Roger Federer they had never seen before. The shanks off his racquet frame came thick and fast and the radar for the strokes that did find the sweet-spot was seemingly malfunctioning.

For the first time in the 22 years that Federer has graced the court, tennis’ ageless wonder was looking like a haggard player just a month short of his 40th birthday.

And the way in which he crashed 6-3, 7-6(4), 6-0 to Poland’s Hubert Hurkacz got people thinking if this was the last time they had seen the Swiss maestro at Wimbledon. Indeed, that question did come up during his post-match media interaction.

Uncertain future

“I really don’t know. I have got to regroup. My goal for the last year and more was to always try and play another Wimbledon,” he said. “I was able to make it this year, which I’m really happy about. I’ve got to take a few days. Obviously, we’re going to speak a little bit tonight, depending on how I feel, then the next couple of days as well. Then we go from there. Just see, ‘Okay, what do I need to do to get in better shape so I can be more competitive?’

“I’m actually very happy I made it as far as I did here, and I actually was able to play Wimbledon at the level that I did, after everything I went through. Of course, I would like to play it again, but at my age you’re just never sure what’s around the corner.”

Wimbledon run

Federer made no secret that Wimbledon was his first big goal when he returned to the tour. He even withdrew from the fourth round of the French Open to give his body time to recover for the grass Slam. But the first sign that he still wasn’t quite ready came in the tune-up ATP 500 event in Halle – a tournament he’s won 10 times. He lost out to Canadian youngster Felix Auger-Aliassime in a match riddled with errors.

And he was the first to admit that the return to London may have ended in the first round itself had Adrian Mannarino – who was leading two-sets-to-one – not slipped and injured himself on the lush green surface.

He did gather some momentum thereon, beating two seeded players and also former World No 7 Richard Gasquet before the wheels came off in the quarterfinal against Hurkacz.

Federer hit 34 winners and conceded 31 unforced errors while his 24-year-old opponent had a tally of 36 winners and just 12 errors. And Federer’s service, which has seen him register 11,411 aces before Wimbledon, started to fly wayward – his first serve in for the third set was a dismal 48 percent (12 of 25).

That 6-0 ‘bagel’ in the third set was the first time he suffered such a score at Wimbledon, and only the second time in the 21st century (the other coming against Rafael Nadal in the 2008 French Open final).

Different yardstick

For a player returning to the tour after 14 months, after two knee surgeries and just eight matches under the belt, a quarterfinal finish is not a bad result, especially when you take Federer’s age into account.

And Hurkacz, the Miami Masters champion and World No 18 is a highly underrated player. If Federer was uncomfortable on the day, the Pole did his bit to make the Swiss feel that.

But will getting more best-of-three matches help him get back the form he’s lacking?

“I’m not sure if it’s necessarily matches, to be honest, because the body actually overall feels fine from the matches,” he said.

“I’m happy I went through all the process of taking losses and trying to play in Paris, Geneva, Doha and Halle, getting myself into match toughness and fitness here in Wimbledon. I definitely need to be a better player if I want to be more competitive at the highest of levels. I knew that coming in.

“You know you need a goal when you’re going through rehab with what I did. You can’t think of the entire mountain to climb at once. You got to go in steps. Wimbledon was the initial first super step, if you like.”

The next big step is the Olympics – a best-of-three event that should be more welcoming to a player looking to end rallies and matches quickly. Right now he’s not sure he will travel to Tokyo though because of the pandemic.

Diminishing returns at Grand Slam

The last time Federer took a lengthy injury break, he came back to win three Majors starting with his first event back on tour at the 2017 Australian Open. He defended the title a year later, the last time he won a Grand Slam. Since then he did reach the World No 1 spot for four weeks, and was a point short of winning Wimbledon in 2019.

But the return to the tour was entirely different the last time mainly because he’s now 39. The body cannot recover as quickly as before, and the long rallies seem even more punishing. And the form still hasn’t come back. Eventually, age will catch up with him, if it hasn’t already done so.

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