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Federer Turns 40
The Rally: What the August exodus of Djokovic, Nadal, Federer and Serena means for summer hard-court tennis
None of the four already all-time greats will play a match at the big Canada or Cincinnati tournaments, leaving their US Open prospects in question.
Published Aug 11, 2021
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It was jolting to hear that Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer will not be playing either of the ATP Masters 1000 events that lead up to the US Open, in Toronto and Cincinnati. That’s remarkable and has sharply piqued my curiosity about where each of them is at, in a variety of respects, as the year’s last major nears.
For Djokovic, it’s hard to be excessively concerned about him skipping those tournaments. He has been so formidable all year, most notably at the majors; Djokovic is the only man to win the first three Slams of the year since Rod Laver did that in 1969. After Wimbledon, he played the Olympics, so he's not entering Flushing Meadows completely cold. Moreover, Djokovic’s fitness and technique are so dialed-in, it’s tough to imagine him being stale upon arrival in New York. This is a man who has taken preparation to new levels. Still, a tiny part of me thinks at least a few matches in North America would have greatly aided his effort to win the US Open.
With Federer, though, his absence is a major concern. While there’s no way I see Djokovic’s withdrawals as a prelude to skipping the US Open, I very much wonder what Federer is planning for New York. Does he really intend to play the US Open without any hardcourt tournament play? Or will he in time announce his withdrawal? Hopes were high that Federer’s return to tennis this year would be a resumption of business as usual. Instead, he’s gone just 9-4—most notably reaching the quarterfinals at Wimbledon—with resumptions quickly giving way to several challenging stops. Here yet, another.
Once upon a time, the period between Wimbledon and the US Open often compelled heavy-duty activity. One week after Jimmy Connors lost the 1978 Wimbledon final to Bjorn Borg, he went off to play a clay-court event in Washington, D.C. Prior to that year’s US Open, Connors played 17 matches. In the summer of 1995, Andre Agassi won four North American hardcourt tournaments. Granted, each man was 25 years old at the time, and Wimbledon used to start one week earlier than it currently does.
But we now occupy a different world. The steps Djokovic and Federer have taken are understandable and not unprecedented. Djokovic is 34 years old; Federer just turned 40. Though each player has proven remarkably durable, a major reason for that is they are both extremely careful when it comes to managing their bodies and schedules. And, of course, the macro layer around all of this is the pandemic. Perhaps no sport more than tennis, with players traveling in and out of one country after another, has more profoundly and frequently felt the cumulative impact of our current world. Even perks like private jets can only reduce so much of the stress.
Steve, what are your thoughts on all this?
In the time since you sent me your first entry to this Rally, Federer and Djokovic have been joined by the sport’s two other veteran superstars, Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams, on the summer sidelines. Rafa has pulled out of Toronto (and later, Cincinnati), and Serena has withdrawn from Cincinnati. It’s starting to feel like a full-fledged transitional moment, one where the adults have finally told the younger generation, “OK kids, time to grow up and carry the sport forward on your own.”
Like you said, much of this is not a surprise, and it doesn’t mean any of these legends will miss the US Open. Each is on the sidelines for a slightly different reason. For the 40-year-old Federer, it’s ongoing knee problems; for the 35-year-old Nadal, it’s a foot injury he’s been dealing with this summer; as for the 39-year-old Serena and the 34-year-old Djokovic, they’re concentrating their efforts on the majors. Though I also wonder if Djokovic’s long-running feud with the powers-that-be in the ATP has made him less willing to support the tour’s big events if he doesn’t feel they’re necessary for his Slam preparations.
And that’s the bummer right now: While these stars may all make it to New York, Canada and Cincinnati are major tournaments in their own right, each of which suffered mightily from the pandemic last year—the Canadian events were cancelled completely, and Cincy was moved to Flushing Meadows and played in front of empty seats. Now these tournaments have their fans back, but they’re still missing the players people most want to see. With Naomi Osaka withdrawing from Wimbledon and now Montreal, this hasn’t been a banner year for star participation. It would be unfortunate for the sport, and especially the tours, if younger players saw Canada and Cincy as skippable events.
There are various levels of concern here. It seems possible, suddenly, that Federer and Serena could announce their retirements by the end of this year. They’ll both be 40 by then, so it would hardly be a shock; but at the start of 2021, I thought they each had more time left. Maybe more alarming is Nadal’s situation—it’s as if losing his Roland Garros title has accelerated his aging process. Since then, he has skipped Wimbledon and the Olympics, and picked up a foot injury that may threaten his US Open chances. Does Rafa also have fewer years left than we might have thought?
There once was a time when many exits would have concerned me deeply. What a shame it was that everyone from viewers to on-site attendees was being deprived of those familiar marquee names. How could a tournament survive? What did all this mean for the sport’s overall health and ability to generate traction in the world of sports? In those days, I was still haunted by journalists who covered other sports issue their harsh verdict on the health of tennis. So anything potentially negative—such as a superstar’s withdrawal—was demoralizing and left me wondering if tennis could thrive.
No question, it’s sad not to see those great players in action. And in the case of Federer and Serena, it leaves me wondering if we need to now regard their current status strictly as tournament-to-tournament or, even more pragmatically, match-to-match. Might any time we see either in action be the last? Not a fun thought.
As far as Nadal goes, injuries have been a significant parallel plot line throughout his entire career. Recall that in the years Nadal turned 17 and 18, physical ailments forced him to skip Roland Garros. At 19, having won the title there the first time he played it, Nadal later that year suffered a potentially career-ending foot injury. So while Federer’s largely injury-free journey has spoiled me, Nadal’s medical arc has conditioned me to view him with delicacy and gratitude. The message since his teens: savor Rafa in the moment. I’m crossing my fingers he’ll recover from this current injury soon enough and be in fighting shape to contend at the US Open.
But over the last decade, I’ve also come to attach myself less to specific players and more to the game overall—to cherish the incredible array of skills all of these men and women possess. It’s one of the reasons why it’s so fun to attend an event and watch row after row of practice courts. I also keep this saying in my head: Once upon a time, everybody was nobody. Contenders rise, rule, descend—and along come others to light up the sky. If I could handle the end of the road for Laver, Jimmy Connors, Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova, I’ll be ready for it with the current greats.
And yet, our current world makes it impossible to strictly be a Pollyanna. The pandemic has triggered all sorts of stress for the entire tennis traveling circus—be it frequent testing, bubbles, protocol violations, various attitudes towards vaccines and other emotional pressures none of us might ever know. It’s understandable that there would be more injuries and prudence from players about committing to play various events. Health—physical, emotional, mental—is clearly the preeminent topic of the ’20s.
Steve, what’s your big picture sense of the world of pro tennis these days?
The game will certainly go on without Roger and Serena, and, pretty soon, Rafa. It has always seemed to me that the moment when the future looks bleakest is the moment that something, or someone, unexpected pops up to renew our interest. In the late 1980s, U.S. tennis fans were mourning the decline of Connors and John McEnroe and wondering where our next male star would come from; just like that, Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras, Jim Courier and Michael Chang appeared. When Sampras retired with 14 major titles in 2002, it seemed to me that his record might last for two decades or more. The following year, Federer began his march to 20, and Nadal and Djokovic showed up soon after.
Like you, I’m a tennis long-hauler, and I’ll happily watch whatever match is on my TV set, or on the court in front of me. We don’t have Rafa this week, but, hey, Shapovalov-Tiafoe and Halep-Collins could both be fun later today. I guess the question is whether anyone among the younger set can create the same kind of gravitas and long-lasting star power that Federer and Serena have over the last 20 years. In the history of the game, there may never have been bigger shoes to fill. For now, it remains unclear who will could fill them. On the women’s side, Osaka and Ash Barty look like consistent Slam contenders; on the men’s side, there’s an ever-widening variety of personalities—Daniil Medvedev, Alexander Zverev, Matteo Berrettini, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Dominic Thiem and Shapovalov—vying to be Next.
For the foreseeable future, though, Djokovic will continue to be the biggest name at the top of the game. That won’t please a lot of people, especially fans of Roger and Rafa; and right now, after his flame-out at the Olympics, Djokovic’s reputation is in one of its periodic free falls. But there will be something missing, at least for me, without him in Cincy. Whether you like him or not, he’s the measuring stick. No men’s result can be wholly satisfying or meaningful unless it has come at a tournament where Djokovic was entered.
So while I understand that our time with Federer and Serena is bound to be limited, and that we need to appreciate Rafa wherever and whenever we can, I do hope that Djokovic skipping both Canada and Cincy isn’t a sign that he’s going to shun most tour events in the future. The young players need a mountain to climb, and he’s a suitably tall one.