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Four questions about the future of Roger Federer
Two months from his 40th birthday, the 20-time Grand Slam champion had Wimbledon on his mind as he punted on a chance—albeit an unlikely one—to add another major at Roland Garros.
Published Jun 09, 2021
WATCH: Before Federer pulled the plug in Paris, he gave an extended interview that touched upon, among other things, how his return to tour will continue to be impacted by pandemic restrictions.
Roger Federer stunned Roland Garros two days ago when he withdrew for the tournament about 12 hours after completing an impressive, four-set, third-round win over Dominik Koepfer.
Those 12 hours may have been a rough interim, or a familiar (to him) period of normal decompression, during which he made a calculated, tactical decision to leave his clay business unfinished due to a higher priority: his desire to compete at Wimbledon. Since his return to competition in Geneva in mid-May, Federer, who will turn 40 in August, has been forthright about focusing on the upcoming grass-court major and leaving other decisions about his future hanging.
Here are four key questions about Federer’s major move.
Is Federer hurt?
Unless you’ve been spending some time inside Federer’s right knee, it would be unwise to buy whole-hog into the theory that his withdrawal was entirely tactical, just part of his prep plan for Wimbledon.
We know from history that when it comes to injuries, Federer plays his cards close to the vest. He uses the term “collecting information,” but he’s parsimonious about doling it out—particularly when it comes to details about injuries that might give his opponents an advantage, even just a minor psychological one.
In announcing his decision, Federer wrote: “After discussions with my team, I’ve decided I will need to pull out of Roland-Garros today. After two knee surgeries and over a year of rehabilitation it’s important that I listen to my body and make sure I don’t push myself too quickly on my road to recovery.”
Note Federer’s use of the word, need, and his reference to the two right knee surgeries.
The first surgery, in February 2020, appeared routine, with Federer planning his return for the grass-court season. But in early June, Federer experienced a setback. He announced that a complication during rehab required another procedure on his knee. By then the pandemic was raging, and Federer pulled the plug on the year.
Federer’s play at the French Open after a misfire in Geneva was encouraging, but in doing so, he played three consecutive tournament matches for just the first time since the 2020 Australian Open. That’s a lot of work for knees that are nearly 40 years old.
Upon learning the news of Federer’s withdrawal after his fourth-round win, Stefanos Tsitsipas said: “I don’t know if it was an injury or not that had him out. He was playing well. I saw some of his games. His body was there and he was playing good tennis. I am surprised.”
Those who caught Federer’s late-night, post-match press conference following his third-round win were less surprised. Referring to the requisite belief that he could contend for the French title, Federer told reporters: “I don't have that feeling right now, so for me these are all stepping stones, right? To something that is really important to me. It's the season, and it's the comeback.”
Fans and the tournament organizers are undoubtedly disappointed, but as Brad Gilbert told me, “If he’s baked, physically, you can totally understand. He has a ton of good equity built up, so it’s not like he wants to do this.”
What did he gain from withdrawing?
Time may be Federer’s enemy in the long term, but it’s his friend in the short haul. Pulling out gives him more time to regain or add to his fitness level for grass. His first scheduled event on his favorite surface is Halle, which begins on June 14—the day after the Roland Garros men’s final.
“Now that the French Open has been pushed back a week, it butts right up against Halle, which is important preparation for Wimbledon for Roger,” Federer’s former coach and Tennis Channel analyst Paul Annacone wrote in a text message. “He has the ability to focus on the macro, I believe grass is his priority.”
Given Federer’s cozy relationship with the Halle organization—he has a lifetime playing and promotional contract with the tournament—it’s a safe bet that he may be approved for a late start. That means he is looking at up to nine or 10 days of rest and acclimation time.
“If you’re outside of Top top 30, you always want to play a good tournament, a[n ATP] 250, to get confidence going [for a major],” Daniil Medvedev, the No. 2 seed at Roland Garros, said after advancing to the quarterfinals. “The higher you go in rankings the more you understand how to prepare for a Slam and get in shape for it. That’s when you don’t want to lose too much energy in warm-up in tournaments.”
In addition to finding out what level of tennis he is capable of producing under best-of-five set, Grand Slam pressure, Federer also experienced something new and radical in Paris that many of his rivals already know too much about: playing without many fans in attendance due to Covid-19 protocols. Novak Djokovic described that experience early last week as “sad,” and said it was less than “fun.”
Federer’s four-set win over Dominik Koepfer in an empty Chatrier gives him some idea of the unique vibe of pandemic tennis. Wimbledon plans on hosting a limited number of fans, but that plan remains in flux.
How does this past week impact his chances at Wimbledon?
“He’s 39, he hasn’t had a lot of matches this year, and I think his body is suffering,” Medvedev said of Federer. “[But] even when he’s 50 years old, Wimbledon will seem like a great chance for him, and he will do his best to prepare.”
Having left a Grand Slam without suffering a loss (although it wasn’t the familiar journey of that type), Federer is probably feeling a surge of confidence—if his withdrawal was not due to injury. Also, he won’t be carrying the sting of what seemed like a likely defeat in Paris at the hands of either Djokovic or Rafael Nadal. To them, Federer now remains an unknown quantity.
If he’s baked, physically, you can totally understand. He has a ton of good equity built up, so it’s not like he wants to do this. ESPN's Brad Gilbert on Federer's decision to pull out of Roland Garros after three match wins
It’s clear that Federer got exactly what he had hoped for at the French Open, an adequate number of matches and the competitive seasoning he was sorely lacking.
“The light at the end of the tunnel, or the measuring stick, was always, ‘Can I come back to a good level against good players?’” Federer said after his first-round win in Paris. “I hope Wimbledon is going to be that place. Maybe there's going to be even something here in Paris. We'll see.”
We saw. Federer wasn’t beaten at Roland Garros, he dismissed himself. That means that, barring physical problems, he’s a few steps ahead of schedule heading for Halle.
Will Wimbledon be Federer’s last hurrah?
It’s unlikely that even a first- or second-round disaster at the All England Club would trigger a drastic response from Federer. As ESPN’s Pam Shriver said, “Being prepared for Wimbledon and the Olympic Games has been Roger’s plan for a long time.”
Uncertainty surrounding the Olympic Games due to Covid-19 has thrown something of a wrench in Federer’s gears, but at this point he has not made any decision about participation. But he had long committed to playing until at least the Tokyo Games.
Should Federer have a disappointing Wimbledon and decide against appearing in Tokyo (a singles gold medal is one of the very few blank places on his resume), all bets may be off—particularly if the US Open is played, even with fans, under Covid restrictions on the players and their families.