Roger Federer‘s decision to forgo playing tournament tennis for the remainder of 2020 immediately raises the possibility that the all-time leading men’s Grand Slam singles champion will not improve on his 20 title count.
But hold the sympathy cards and floral arrangements. We were at this same juncture in 2016, for similar knee injury reasons, only to witness a remarkable Federer resurgence in 2017. That year, Federer won two majors on a 52-5 record and capped his comeback by capturing the No. 1 ranking early in 2018 after spending five years in exile, thanks to Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal.
“I’m not going to write him off, but this is concerning,” ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert said of Federer’s decision, made due to a “setback” in his recovery from right knee surgery in February. “Thirty-nine ain’t what it used to be, that’s for sure [Federer will be 39 in August]. But if tennis gets going again, he’ll probably be unseeded for the Australian Open in ’21 because he played so little early this year. And that could mean trouble.”
Federer seems willing to take that risk, and it might be that he would rather spend the next few months plotting a sequel to 2017 than hoping for a relaunch of the ATP Tour. That resumption, if it happens at all, will surely take place under strict coronavirus-related protocols and, most likely, with an eerie lack of spectators.
“I can’t imagine competing in an empty stadium. I don’t succeed, and I hope it never happens,” Federer said during a video call with Brazilian legend Gustavo Kuerten in late May, adding, “It is clear that the possibility is feasible. But I think we could wait for the appropriate moment to return in the best conditions, with at least a third of the stadium full or half in.”
It’s difficult to imagine a player who is free of financial concerns (Federer was recently ranked by Forbes as sports’ top earner) and loves to bring his family of five to tournaments all over the world responding enthusiastically to the plan the US Open is floating to hold the Cincinnati Masters and America’s Slam during a one-month, fan-free period starting in mid-August. That proposal calls for the players to be sequestered in a hotel (an airport lodging, in fact), subject to rigorous health protocols and allowed to have just one guest for the duration of the tournament.
Perhaps those restrictions help explain why Federer, in his announcement of his plans via Twitter, didn’t seem too discouraged: “Now, much like I did leading up to the 2017 season, I plan to take the necessary time to be 100 percent ready to play at my highest level. I will be missing my fans and the tour dearly, but I will be looking forward to seeing everyone back on tour at the start of the 2021 season.”
Federer’s choice is about as risk-free as possible. Unlike last time he took a break, the tennis world will not continue to spin in his absence, with rivals and newcomers cashing in during his time away from the court. But this decision triggers a number of caution flags, even in comparison to Federer’s decision in 2016.
The most obvious: age.
“We are in uncharted territory, the way guys are training and taking care of themselves,” Gilbert said. “Sure, Ken Rosewall and Jimmy Connors [both played in majors after turning 39], but today’s game is more physical, and the players are tougher.”
Besides, Gilbert said, Federer’s hiatus in 2016 lasted six months. This time, if he returns on schedule, it will have been almost a year. That’s a lifetime in tennis, just ask Juan Martin del Potro.
“When you take that much time,” Gilbert said, “even at 25, 26, it can take six months to get your mojo back. It’s not like you can take your time at 39, especially if you’re not protected by seeding.”
Federer’s reaction to surgery also was different this time around. In January 2016, he tore the meniscus in his left knee while bathing his kids, and after undergoing minor surgery and rehab, he returned to find that the knee still troubled him. He played five events with a tender knee before hobbling away from the tour after a semifinal loss to Milos Raonic at Wimbledon.
This year, Federer was unable to test his surgically repaired right knee under tournament conditions before he pulled back.
He revealed in his Twitter post that he suffered a “setback” that required another “quick” arthroscopic procedure weeks after his initial surgery. The complication suggests that though he is a miraculous athlete with an elite team that has always projected an aura of hyper-competence, Federer is facing the same extended recovery time and potential complications as anyone else past his youth.
It’s also possible that Federer and his team have concocted a long-term game plan designed to provide more daylight between Federer, with his 20 majors, and the hard-charging Nadal (19) and Djokovic (17). After all, in 2016, Federer whiled away the time reconstructing and improving his one-handed backhand, a refresh that played an outsized role in his regeneration.
“He may want to tweak or work on his game,” Gilbert said. “But it’s pretty risky at this stage.”
Gilbert also thinks it’s likely that Federer suffered his setback while ramping up his training, perhaps during a training block as fears of the coronavirus pandemic began to recede. “Fed is pretty quiet about those things,” Gilbert said. “He may have wanted to figure out where he is, and he suffered a ‘compensation’ injury because he had been favoring the other leg.”
With Federer, though, you never really know what’s coming. He was almost 22 when he won his first major title, something Boris Becker accomplished at 17, Bjorn Borg at (barely) 18 and Pete Sampras at 19. Few predicted that the slow-starting Swiss player with the winning, elastic smile would wind up the grandest Slammer.
Federer’s record past the age of 30 is remarkable: His 139 match wins after that milestone mark an Open-era record. With 36 titles in that period, he trails only Rod Laver (44). The four majors Federer has bagged leave him tied for third in that department. During his last comeback year, he won more titles than he did in any year since 2007, posted his best winning percentage (.915) since 2006 and won two majors for the first time since 2009.
This might prove to be a final point-of-no-return for Federer, should his efforts in 2021 fall short. But it could also result in a final, glorious chapter that he would not have had a chance to write were it not for the shutdown of the game due to the coronavirus pandemic.
One thing we know is that Federer, who anticipated a hunger for team events and started the wildly successful Laver Cup to satisfy it, knows an opportunity when he sees it.