Tennis Channel Live: Roger Federer's recovery

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“I just feel like the story is not over,” Roger Federer told reporters before he launched his most recent comeback in Doha last March. “Retirement was never really on the cards. I think it's more of a conversation if the knee keeps bothering me for months and months—then let’s look at it.”

Alas, it’s time to look at it.

Federer played just 13 matches (9-4) since that optimism-laced report. In August, he issued an ominous Instagram post, saying, partly: “I will be on crutches for many weeks and also out of the game for many months. . . I want to give myself a glimmer of hope also to return to the tour in some shape or form. I am realistic, don’t get me wrong. I know how difficult it is at this age right now to do another surgery and try it, but look, I want to be healthy.”

Thus, instead of chasing his fellow elites in hopes of winning a 21st Grand Slam title at the US Open (breaking the three-way tie with Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal), or earning an 11th berth in the season-ending ATP Finals, Federer underwent yet another knee operation that left him hobbling around on crutches as tennis closed shop for the year.

Federer, who turned 40 in August, may try yet another comeback. He may choose to do an official farewell tour, or build an empire on the foundation of the exhibition he created, the Laver Cup. He will be offered wild cards until the day he’s forced to use a walker. Federer is likely to remain a highly visible presence in tennis.

But it’s unlikely that Federer will ever contend for titles again.

Federer plays his cards close to his vest. We know few details about his fitness, but the last knee surgery is thought to have addressed more serious, age and wear-related impairments than the two arthroscopic procedures that kicked off a new phase in Federer’s career in 2020. Those surgeries were relatively minor, but even they exacted a high price, causing Federer to miss more than a year of tournament play.

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The Laver Cup, which Federer helped create and build into a significant event, is one of many places in the game in which Roger will remain visible.

The Laver Cup, which Federer helped create and build into a significant event, is one of many places in the game in which Roger will remain visible.

The shutdown caused by the pandemic could have been a blessing in disguise, as it disrupted the game at every level. But subsequently, Federer never developed the momentum needed to become that familiar, major force. Concerns about his knee forced him to limit his participation in 2021. He withdrew from the French Open after three successful rounds, despite showing flashes of his A-game. The idea was to spare himself for the tournament where he’s been most successful, Wimbledon.

That plan backfired. Federer was soundly beaten in the quarterfinals (6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-0) by Hubert Hurkacz, who had never been that far along in a major. Although he showed no signs of impairment during the match, Federer’s knee apparently betrayed him again. He opted for a more invasive surgery and pulled the plug on his year.

In addition to the obvious challenges a 40-year old faces trying to make a comeback after multiple surgeries and long layoffs, Federer has to grapple with the uncomfortable fact that, unlike his rivals Nadal and Djokovic, he no longer holds an edge over the field on any surface. “Wimbledon is the place where you think there’s not that many guys who can beat him,” ESPN analyst Patrick McEnroe told me recently. “That’s more questionable now.”

But make no mistake: the fire still burns in Federer. If able, he’s going down swinging, whether it’s with a racquet or a crutch in his hand. As he said in that last public statement in August:

“I’m still a work in progress but probably one of the other reasons for coming back is I want to get that high again of playing against the biggest players and in the biggest tournaments, and hopefully winning them again.”