Roger Federer had a sombre announcement to make on Thursday, but you wouldn’t have known it from the picture he used to accompany the message. In fact, there’s a good chance you might have scrolled past the post altogether. After all, it contained a picture of Federer leaping into the air Jordan-style for a spectacular smash, and at first glance looked like a puerile inspirational quote posted by one of his many fan pages.
Fortunately, the sheer size of the text box was enough to make anyone do a double take. And the words, “I will unfortunately have to miss Dubai, Indian Wells, Bogota, Miami and the French Open,” juxtaposed against the image of ‘full-flight Federer’ jumped out soon enough.
By the time you could truly comprehend the gravity of the situation for Federer, the tennis world was already in an uproar.
To be fair, a 38-year-old missing three and a half months due to injury shouldn’t really be a stop-the-presses event. But considering the nature of the problem afflicting the great man and its timing, it was hard for your mind to not go into overdrive.
Federer said that his right knee had been bothering him for a while, and that he had an arthroscopic surgery to get the problem fixed. Now an arthroscopic surgery is barely invasive, and doesn’t usually take long to recover from, but that’s only inasmuch as ‘recover’ is taken to mean walking around without pain. If you want to be able to run, jump, slide and spin — like a professional tennis player has to — the rehab time and process are considerably more complicated.
The last time Federer had a significant operation done on his body — back in 2016 — it was the left knee instead of the right that went under the knife. Incidentally, that surgery (again an arthroscopic one, to repair a torn meniscus) also took place just after the Australian Open, forcing Federer to pull out of Dubai and Indian Wells.
The Swiss returned to action in Monte Carlo that year, but the knee remained dodgy. A recurring back injury compounded the problem, forcing him to withdraw from the French Open — thus breaking his record streak of 65 consecutive Grand Slam appearances. After three uncomfortable tournaments on grass, in each of which he lost before the final, Federer pulled the plug on his season.
His knee needed time to heal, and he wisely decided to give it exactly that. He returned to the tour only at the start of 2017, and celebrated his comeback by winning the Australian Open.
Not all knee injuries are the same, and just because it took Federer a year to fully recover in 2016 doesn’t mean it will take him just as long this time. But there are a couple of other factors that suggest the road to recovery in 2020 might possibly be even bumpier.
The first and most obvious is Federer’s age. He was 34 in 2016, and he is 38 now; while four years might not seem like a lot, for a professional athlete they could make a world of difference. Everything slows down as you get further and further away from your peak — including the ability of your muscles and joints to re-acquaint themselves with the rigours of on-court play.
Perhaps more significantly, Federer’s body has already started showing signs of wearing out. At his last two Slams he was defeated by injury first and by his opponents later — a back issue at the 2019 US Open, and a groin problem at the 2020 Australian Open. Even prior to that, he was affected by breathing difficulties at the 2018 US Open, a wrist injury at 2018 Wimbledon, and a back niggle at the 2017 US Open.
That’s five out of the last 10 Slams where Federer has struggled with some kind of physical ailment, in case you’re keeping count.
Is Federer’s body not capable of handling best-of-five-set matches anymore? It wouldn’t be unusual if that were true. A 38-year-old playing at the highest level — and being World No 3 — is, quite frankly, unprecedented in the sport of tennis.
Just a couple of weeks ago Steve Tignor, while writing for tennis.com, spoke of the contrasting responses to Federer’s recent accomplishments and those of a past great known for his longevity. When Jimmy Connors reached the 1991 US Open semi-final at the age of 39, everyone considered it a modern miracle; when a similarly aged Federer did the same at this year’s Australian Open, everyone looked at it as the bare minimum he was expected to do.
Federer has made reaching Slam semi-finals and finals at his age look mundane. But in reality, it is anything but.
If we do accept frequent injuries and setbacks as the new norm for Federer, what should we expect from him going forward? The Swiss said ‘see you on the grass’ in his Instagram post, which suggests he expects to be playing again by June. If he does make it back in time for Halle — where he is the defending champion — he will have at least some match practice in the lead-up to Wimbledon.
Federer’s ranking won’t take too big a hit until then. He will lose 3,180 points over the next three months, which means he will have 3,950 at the start of Halle — which would be good enough to retain a spot in the top 8. But what happens from Halle onwards could have a big impact on the rest of Federer’s season, and maybe even his career as a whole.
Federer would be defending 1,700 points over the four weeks immediately after his return, with very little room to maneuver. He will still get a top 5 seeding at Wimbledon owing to his strong grasscourt results the past two years, but anything less than a Halle title AND a semi-final appearance at SW19 will likely seem him tumble out of the top 10 by August.
That in turn would jeopardise his Olympics and US Open draws, putting him at risk of running into someone like Novak Djokovic or Rafael Nadal even before the quarter-finals. A good run at Cincinnati could possibly help him stay above water in New York, but if he keeps running into good players in the early rounds — and a player outside the top 8 very well could — he is bound to suffer a few losses.
And all of this is under the best-case assumption — that he is completely healthy throughout his comeback, with no lingering effects of his surgery. If he encounters even minor complications or niggles at any point in the second half of the season, his ranking could nosedive even further.
Long story short: Federer would have his hands full trying to remain in the top 10 upon his return, which, by extension, means qualification for the ATP Finals is not guaranteed. Since his first appearance in 2002, Federer has failed to qualify for the year-end championships just once 1 in that surgery-stricken 2016. You can bet your last dollar he wouldn’t want 2020 to be the second.
Federer currently has 720 points in the Race to London, and judging by last year’s cutoff he would need close to 3,000 by the end of the year to make it to the top 8. Around 2,300 points over six months (which luckily enough are Federer’s favorite six months of the year, comprising of grass and indoor tournaments) shouldn’t be too difficult for the Swiss if he plays to his potential. But will he be able to play to his potential?
If Federer’s fitness and form over the last couple of years are anything to go by, answering that with any kind of conviction is not easy. Except for the man himself.
Federer remains unmistakably upbeat about his chances in both the short-term and the long-term; it’s not a coincidence that he chose a picture of himself in full flight to accompany the gloomy news he was delivering. “I can’t wait to be back playing again,” read his Instagram post, and there’s not a soul in the world that would doubt the sincerity of those words, or overlook the enthusiasm in his pledge.
The Swiss clearly still loves playing the sport, and you know he will do everything in his power to keep competing at the highest level. The very fact that he had the surgery suggests he doesn’t want to walk into the sunset any time soon; nobody opts for surgery if it’s their last year on tour.
But looking on from the outside, we can’t help but wonder whether things have gone past the stage of what he loves and wants. You can only fight against the ravages of time for so long, even if you are Roger Federer.
Updated Date: Feb 21, 2020 10:11:28 IST