“I’m extremely disappointed to announce that I will not be able to represent Switzerland at the Olympic Games in Rio,” Roger Federer wrote on Facebook on Tuesday, “and that I will also miss the remainder of the season.”
Even for those of us who watched Federer’s leg give out during his semifinal loss to Milos Raonic at Wimbledon, this message hit with a jarring thud of surprise. The remainder of the season? That’s unprecedented in Federer-world. Before this year’s French Open, the Swiss Maestro’s body had gone nearly 20 years without missing a beat. He had played in 65 straight Grand Slam tournaments, a record run that dated back to the previous century.
But Federer’s seeming imperviousness to the physical wear and tear that comes with being a professional athlete finally came to an end in 2016. In fact, after being held at bay for so long, Father Time has been having a field day with the soon-to-be 35-year-old. At the end of January, Federer underwent knee surgery that kept him out for two months. Twice, just as he was ready to return, his body revolted against him: In March Federer flew to Miami, only to pull out with gastroenteritis; in April he flew to Madrid, only to pull out with a bad back. Finally, an encouraging return at Wimbledon ended with Federer splayed out across the grass against Raonic. Apparently, it was the knee again.
“I need more extensive rehabilitation following my knee surgery earlier this year,” Federer wrote. “The doctors advised that if I wanted to play on the ATP World Tour injury free for another few years, as I intend to do, I must give my knee and body the proper time to fully recover.”
By including that extra phrase, “as I intend to do,” Federer made it clear that his career isn’t over. At the end of his message, he even specified how he’s going to play when he returns. There’ll be no pushing from the baseline for him.
“I am as motivated as ever,” he wrote, “and plan to put all my energy towards coming back strong, healthy, and in shape to play attacking tennis in 2017.”
Whatever Federer's plans may be, when he returns in January 2017, he’ll be six months past his 35th birthday. Even if he does play for “a few years” more, what are the chances he’ll compete for an 18th major title? No male player since Ken Rosewall in the 1970s has won one past the age of 32. On the other hand, by abandoning what has been the most difficult season of his career, Federer should be fresher mentally and physically in 2017 than he would have been otherwise. Fans should expect less when he comes back, but appreciate his presence more.
What makes this announcement more unfortunate, and probably tougher to take for Federer, is that it comes just two weeks before he was scheduled to play in Rio. Over the last four years, he had cited his participation in the 2016 Olympics—what would have been his fifth trip to the Games—as a long-term goal.
That would have been a fitting way for Federer to cap his career. Along with Venus Williams, he was the player most responsible for shifting the sport’s attitude toward the Olympics at the Sydney Games in 2000. When tennis was reintroduced in Seoul 12 years earlier, many wondered why. The sport already had its own version of the Olympics, four times a year, and its rich superstar players hardly fit the Games’ amateur ideal. Not surprisingly, tennis’ biggest names didn’t prioritize it, especially on the men’s side. They had grown up dreaming of a Wimbledon title, not a gold medal. Spain’s Jordi Arrese, who had a career-high ranking of No. 62, won silver in Barcelona in 1992.
Federer’s generation was the first to grow up watching tennis at the Olympics, and imagining that they could be part of it. The 19-year-old embraced the experience in Sydney. While he lost the bronze-medal match that year—and turned the man who beat him, Arnaud Di Pasquale, into one of the sport’s great trivia questions—Federer gained something greater: He met his wife, Mirka, at the Sydney Games.
Federer and Venus, who won two golds in Sydney, injected an old-fashioned, play-for-the-love-of-the-game amateur spirit into the Olympics that caught on among their fellow professionals. Federer’s gold-medal run with Stan Wawrinka in Beijing in 2008, and his four-hour win over Juan Martin del Potro in London in 2012, would be career highlights. A mixed-doubles appearance with his countrywoman, Martina Hingis, in Rio had promised to be another.
While that wasn’t meant to be, Federer’s desire to play doesn’t seem to have abated at all 16 years after Sydney.
“The love I have for tennis,” he wrote on Tuesday on Facebook, “the competition, tournaments and of course you, the fans remains intact.”
Hey, the Tokyo Games are just four years away...