Roger Federer’s announcement that minor surgery on his right knee will sideline him until Wimbledon at the end of June ripped through the tennis community like a hurricane on Thursday.
After reluctantly having an operation to repair freak damage to his left knee when running a bath for one of his children in Melbourne in 2016, he is left with two knees that have gone under the knife.
He returned from his first ordeal – and seven months out – to win the Australian Open in 2017, one of the great sporting comebacks. There are no such assurances he can do anything like that again.
From the time Federer posted the news on Twitter that he would miss four lead-up tournaments and the French Open (with no guarantee of appearing at Wimbledon), his worldwide audience went into paroxysms of grief, registering more than 10,000 “likes” in half an hour, although there was not much to like.
Their concern – and that of the entire industry – is that, at 38, Federer is hurrying towards the last chapter of his remarkable story. While he has had injuries in the past – although few until he passed 35, certainly not as many as his most of his contemporaries – the accumulation of trouble in key areas of his body does not encourage confidence in his medium- to long-term future.
“My right knee has been bothering me for a little while,” he said. “I hoped it would go away but, after an examination, and discussion with my team, I decided to have arthroscopic surgery in Switzerland yesterday. After the procedure, the doctors confirmed that it was the right thing to have done and are very confident of a full recovery. As a result, I will unfortunately have to miss Dubai, Indian Wells, Bogota, Miami and the French Open.”
— Roger Federer (@rogerfederer) February 20, 2020
He added: “I am grateful for everyone’s support. I can’t wait to be back playing again soon, see you on the grass!”
The latter sentiment, at least, held out hope that he would soldier on. The more sober reality is that, having also endured back pain and several struggles at the highest level over the past year, Federer surely knows that adding to his record 20 majors is a dwindling prospect. He might make it to Wimbledon; he might also get to the Tokyo Olympics. But it will not be the Federer we have known for most of his 22 years on the Tour.
At the Australian Open last month, he opened his campaign with some scintillating tennis against moderate opposition in Steve Johnson and Filip Krajinovic, then suffered through four hours and five sets against the stubborn John Millman (who stopped him in the fourth round of the 2018 US Open), survived a gruelling five-setter in the quarter-finals against the world No 100 Tennys Sandgren and had little left to offer Novak Djokovic, who took just two hours and 18 minutes to advance to the final, where he won an eighth title.
It was Djokovic – the toughest rival of his career – who saved two match points against him to win Wimbledon in another extraordinary battle last summer. That might have been the last gasp of a genius. It took Federer days to recover from the experience, and he set off around Switzerland with his family to refresh his spirit.
There is only so long he will be able or willing to endure that sort of defeat. What sustains him is love: his own for the game and that of millions of fans for him. A sample of the Twitter responses to the news of his absence shows the depth of that warmth.
“Get well soon champ. There are more years to come!” “Get well soon & come back stronger, Roger!” “Six months break and miracle happened at AO 2017. Miracle at RG 2020 please, champ.” When reminded Federer had opted out of Roland Garros, that poster would not have it. “Yes, hoping for a miracle.” Because that is what Federer has supplied for his congregation for more than two decades, during which time he has won 103 titles, 1,242 matches (losing a mere 271) and earned $115,969,871.
His fans care less for those numbers, though, than the vision they embrace in their rapture. Nobody plays tennis like Federer, because nobody can.
When the 16-year-old Spaniard Carlos Alcaraz beat his 32-year-old compatriot, Albert Ramos-Vinolas (41 in the world), in the first round in Rio this week, he told Tennis TV: I like to play very aggressively with a lot of winners. My style is more or less like Federer’s.”
He no doubt meant no disrespect to the Swiss, but it was a ludicrous assertion for a player ranked 406 in the world, whatever his potential and self-belief.
He descended to earth in the second round on Thursday, losing in three sets to world No 116 Federico Coria, of Argentina. But Alcaraz has left his mark and joins a lengthening queue of young contenders eager to move into the void that Federer, Djokovic and Rafael Nadal will leave in years to come.
For now, tennis trains its eyes on Federer, as it has done since he arrived as a similarly precocious talent in 1998, giving another Argentinian, Lucas Arnold Ker, a decent argument over two sets in Gstaad. For now, Federer is world No3. To nearly everyone who loves the game, he will always be No 1. They want another miracle.