Updated: August 17, 2021 9:22:45 am
The tennis world waited for 14 months for Roger Federer to get back to the tour. Waited, but didn’t stop. The week he returned, in March this year – after two knee surgeries – Novak Djokovic extended his hold on the World No. 1 spot to 311 weeks, breaking the Swiss’ record for most time spent in that coveted position.
Federer had watched from the sidelines how the younger players were getting stronger, while the older Djokovic (34) and Nadal (35) kept on winning Grand Slams as he struggled to get his body match-fit. His comeback was cheerfully received by colleagues and fans alike. But the start-stop return has shuddered to another breakdown.
In the early hours of Monday, the 40-year-old announced on social media that he will undergo another knee surgery. A few hours later, World No. 2 Daniil Medvedev won a fourth ATP 1000 Masters event (Canadian Open) at the end of a week that saw Stefanos Tsitsipas overtake Nadal to become the new World No. 3.
The wheels for a New World Order in tennis have long been in motion. Federer’s once seemingly-unassailable tally of 20 Grand Slam titles has been matched by both Djokovic and Nadal. He’s no longer the one being chased. And once he comes back, he’ll be the one playing catch-up.
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Not the end
Surely for somebody who has achieved as much as he has, with a game so easy on the eye that an image of him playing a backhand was compared to a move by a ballerina, the ‘goodbye’ cannot come from a hospital bed.
He had made a successful comeback once before too. Federer returned in 2017 after a lengthy gap to win the Australian Open, and then defended that crown a year later with the Wimbledon 2017 title in between. Making a comeback at 36 though is much less taxing than at 40.
But importantly, he wants to return.
“I’ve been doing a lot of checks with the doctors as well on my knee, getting all the information as I hurt myself further during the grass-court season and Wimbledon,” Federer said in a video uploaded on Instagram.
“That’s just not the way to go forward, so unfortunately, they told me for the medium to long term to feel better, I will need surgery. I decided to do it… I’ll be on crutches for many weeks and also out of the game for many months, so it’s going to be difficult of course in some ways, but at the same time I know it’s the right thing to do because I want to be healthy, I want to be running around later as well again and I want to give myself a glimmer of hope to return to the tour in some shape or form.”
With the way Djokovic has been playing this year – capturing the first three Slams of the season to take his tally to 20 – he’s the firm favourite to win the upcoming US Open as well. Should that happen, for the first time since the 2009 French Open, Federer will not hold the record for most Grand Slam titles won.
— Roger Federer (@rogerfederer) July 13, 2021
Federer did know his record would be broken though. At the Geneva Open in May, he said: “Rafa and Novak will win more Majors than me because they are that good. After that knee injury in 2016, I would have taken one more Major and was able to grab three amazing ones. I had my moment and always said everything that comes after 15 was a bonus.”
For the first time in his career, he’ll be trailing his biggest rivals – both much younger.
The last match Federer played this season was the Wimbledon quarterfinal where he felt the full force of the younger guard. Poland’s Hubert Hurkacz, the Miami Masters champion and highly understated World No 11, handed Federer a straight-sets loss with what was only the Swiss’ second ‘bagel’ (6-0) suffered in the 21st century – the other came against Nadal in the 2008 French Open final.
If Federer looked uncomfortable in the match, the 24-year-old made it that way. Remarkably, after the win, the Pole lost to Italy’s Matteo Berrettini, who had been schooled by Federer in the fourth round of Wimbledon in 2019. But the Italian grew rapidly after the loss to Federer and reached his first Grand Slam final in London this year.
And then there’s are likes of (but not limited to) Alexander Zverev, Andrey Rublev, Denis Shapovalov, Tsitsipas, and the older 25-year-olds Medvedev and Berrettini, who have found their footing on the tour and are irreverent to Federer’s reputation.
The Swiss maestro, the holder of 103 men’s singles titles – second only to Jimmy Connors’ 109 – is currently ranked ninth in the world. But that’s mainly because the rankings were frozen due to the pandemic. There are eight players ahead of him, but when he returns, whenever he does, the ladder to the top will be longer, and much harder to climb.