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The Rally, Wimbledon Edition: Hubert Hurkacz's breakthrough win, Roger Federer's concerning loss, and what it all means
It will be fascinating to see what the immediate and long-term future holds for both men after the 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-0 result.
Published Jul 07, 2021
WATCH: Is this the last we've seen of Roger Federer on Centre Court?
In this edition of The Rally, Joel Drucker, Peter Bodo, Ed McGrogan and Steve Tignor give their perspectives on Hubert Hurkacz's straight-set dismissal of Roger Federer in the Wimbledon quarterfinals.
What a day at Wimbledon. Down a set in his quarterfinal match versus Hubert Hurkacz, Roger Federer led 4-1 in the second, apparently on a path to parity.
Then, everything changed and his world suddenly looked quite different. Federer would only win two more games, and none in the third and final set.
On a macro basis, Federer was thoroughly outclassed, in this case by a younger, stronger opponent who took it to him with impressive firepower, precision and—most of all—poise. With nary a hiccup, Hurkacz was able to pay far more attention to the ball and its movements than get too concerned with the significance of the occasion: a chance to reach his first Grand Slam semifinal against Roger Federer on Centre Court.
The smaller picture will recall two points in the tiebreaker that proved disastrous for Federer. At 2-all, he hit a superb wide serve in the deuce court, charged in for a forehand volley—but instead of punching it like a conventional volley, tried and missed a swing volley into the net. On the next point, one of the rarest things you’ll ever see happened: Lined up to hit an easy high forehand volley, Federer got tangled in his feet and lost the point.
Though Federer had rallied from two sets to love down ten times, it was hard to believe he’d be able to do that this time. Swiftly went the third set.
Having witnessed players as far back as Pancho Gonzales, Rod Laver and Billie Jean King in the final moments of their career, I’ve come to see this midnight phase differently than I once did. In my youth, it was sad to see iconic elders leave the stage. That emotional flavor accelerated through my 20s and early 30s, as I diligently tracked Jimmy Connors with personal fervor, right down to the tears I shed when he lost what proved his final US Open match, 6-0 in the fourth to Ivan Lendl. I was also emotionally struck by Andre Agassi’s final match at the 2006 US Open, perhaps most of all by the power of his eloquent farewell speech.
But now, for a number of reasons, I find myself far less emotionally attached to specific players than I once did. I see the passage of time and the close of a player’s career as a natural part of life’s journey. Then again, it’s hard to believe this was Federer’s final match at Wimbledon. Surely that can’t be the case, can it?
What are your thoughts and feelings in the wake of Federer’s exit from SW19?
Hi there Joel,
I have to admit that while I enjoy and value watching and interacting with the players, I have never felt as emotionally invested in their fortunes as some. That holds true even for the players whom I would call genuine friends.
My main reaction to Federer’s loss is to ponder a word he used repeatedly, and in different contexts, in his post-match press conference: “perspective.” He communicated that he wants to keep this loss in perspective. Keep his goals in perspective. Keep his chances going forward in perspective. I just wish all those Federeritres who are presently flinging themselves off bridges or calling their therapists would take heed and also keep things in perspective.
People have been batting around that despicable word “retirement” a lot in recent weeks. It has hung over Federer’s head like the Sword of Damocles, which is really unfair to a guy who, while nearly 40, is still in great shape, highly ranked, and clearly in love with the game. So let’s keep that in perspective.
There’s an amusing irony lurking here. Winning Wimbledon this year might have been a more potent motivation for Federer to retire than losing in the quarterfinals. As Pete Sampras can attest, going out on top is very tempting for a player who has been struggling. But very few get to enjoy that rare experience. Even Sampras did not officially retire until early the following year, after his great US Open triumph in 2002.
Billie Jean King once said something very wise about players who continue to play after they are no longer capable of their absolute best. She remarked that a career should have a bell-shaped curve; that players have both the right—and perhaps the need—to take the scenic route out of the game. That trip has lessons to impart. It completes a circle. It leaves the player with additional perspective.
I’m not saying Roger should hang around until it becomes painfully obvious that his skills have eroded and he loses to every Tom, Dick, and Hubert. But to me he’s far from that point now. I thought Hurkacz played a terrific match.
The most worrisome aspect of Federer’s performance was his loss of resolve and energy after the disappointment of the second-set tiebreaker. He was clearly bummed out by how the breaker went, and just could not pull himself out of the funk, suggesting that he did not feel or think himself capable of winning the next three sets.
You know what, though? Most tournaments are best-of-three sets, and many are on fairly quick hard courts. The Olympics are next. I say bring it on!
What say you, Eddie?
Your point about Federer’s still-essential qualities as he approaches 40 is worth emphasizing. Hindsight being what it is, I was surprised how many people picked Federer to win Wimbledon, considering his relative lack of match play at any level since 2020. But a quarterfinal run, harsh as the ending was, was impressive for someone who looked cooked in the first round, looked his age in Halle (a tournament he owns, in various respects) and—let me remind everyone once more—is almost 40.
It’s probably a formality, at this point, that both Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal surpass 20 Grand Slam singles titles, barring injury. But will they still be holding championship points at Wimbledon like Federer was, two years ago, nearing his 38th birthday? Will they reach the fourth round of their worst major, statistically, as Federer just did at Roland Garros? The levels Djokovic and Nadal continue to reach can make Federer look worse in comparison, because they’re playing at the same time. But in a vacuum, what Federer is doing remains exceptional, even if titles are drying up.
Steve, I want to know your thoughts on Federer, but also on Hurkacz. He’s had a strange year, coming into Wimbledon on a six-match losing streak, including to such luminaries like Botic Van de Zandschulp and Dominic Stephan Stricker. His record was just 15-11 before SW19, but it also featured two title runs, in Delray Beach and Miami. Now, the Florida Man has become a Wimbledon semifinalist, and he’s got a good chance to go farther. Matteo Berrettini will be a tough out on grass, but Hurkacz’s path to the semis, which included a turnaround, two-day win over Daniil Medvedev, is the stuff of a contender.
Do we make too much of a player’s form leading into a tournament, especially Grand Slams? Hurkacz seems to have turned that notion on its head, while turning a lot of heads in the process.
[Billie Jean King] remarked that a career should have a bell-shaped curve; that players have both the right—and perhaps the need—to take the scenic route out of the game. That trip has lessons to impart. It completes a circle. It leaves the player with additional perspective.
Ed, and everyone,
Lots of interesting thoughts here. This may be the most-pondered 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-0 match of all time. But there’s good reason for it, because we can’t definitively say that it won’t be the last time we see Federer on Centre Court. I was surprised, when Federer was asked whether he thinks this might be his final match at Wimbledon, to hear him say this:
“I don't know. I really don't know. I got to regroup. My goal was always for the last year and more to always try to play another Wimbledon. The initial goal, like you know, was to play last year. That was anyway never going to happen. Plus the pandemic hit.
“I was able to make it this year, which I'm really happy about. Like I said, with everything that comes after Wimbledon, we were always going to sit down and talk about it because clearly now Wimbledon is over. I got to take a few days.
“Obviously we're going to speak a little bit tonight, depending on how I feel, then the next couple of days as well. Then we go from there. Just see, OK, what do I need to do to get in better shape so I can be more competitive.”
When the question was asked, I was expecting Federer to put any doubts about his future to rest by saying that he’s definitely planning to play for another year, and return to Wimbledon in 2022. I thought, after all of the work he had done to reach this point, he would want to give himself one last go-around next year. And maybe he will. But it also sounds like he might not. As well as he did to reach the quarterfinals, the way he lost today, to a guy outside the Top 10, in such one-sided fashion at the end, seems to have hit him pretty hard. Surely he doesn’t want to end his Wimbledon career on a bagel set. At the same time, he probably won’t want to come back again in 2022 if he thinks the result is going to be similar.
You asked about Hubert Hurkacz, Ed. I was thinking during the match that while the vast majority of fans will mourn Federer’s defeat, there’s a hard core of tennis devotees—like myself—who will be thrilled to see Hurkacz put on a performance like this, in a moment like this. Hubi is one of the sport’s nicest and most unassuming people; you could see it in the apologetic way he approached Federer at the net after beating him. It was also a thrill because, while few will notice it when he’s on the same court as Federer, Hurkacz has a fun game to watch. The forehand he can flick wherever he wants, the steady two-handed backhand, the angles he creates with both shots, the proactive ways he finds to move in: It has been amazing to see him put it all together, and remain so calm, in his last two wins over Federer and Daniil Medvedev. Over his last five sets, he’s played as well as anyone.
This wasn’t a passing of the torch. Hurkacz is only 24, but no one, at least as of now, expects him to be the game’s next great player. But it was a reminder of how many engaging personalities and playing styles there are in pro tennis, and that Hurkacz would be a welcome addition to the game’s elite. The sport will go on without Federer, but hopefully it won’t have to for another year. Hopefully, after he’s sat and talked with his team, he won’t want it to end this way at Wimbledon.