Nothing ever goes according to plan, not even a tennis season. It took a little more than a month for 2020 to throw us its first major curveball: on Thursday, Roger Federer announced that he has undergone arthroscopic surgery on his right knee, and that he’ll have to miss the next five events on his schedule—Dubai, Indian Wells, Miami, Bogota and the French Open. He’ll also skip Madrid and Rome, which he played last year in the run-up to Roland Garros. Just when the Big 3 looked liked they might really go on forever, one of them has shown his human side again.
“My right knee had been bothering me for a little while,” Federer said. “I hoped it would go away, but after an examination, and discussion with my team, I decided to have arthroscopic surgery in Switzerland.”
“I can’t wait to be back playing again soon, see you on the grass!”
For Federer fans, that final, cheerful phrase—“see you on the grass!”—probably softened the blow a little. The eternal optimists among them might even see a silver lining in all of this. At 38, Federer’s focus is obviously on the Grand Slams now, and his best chance of grabbing one of them will come at Wimbledon. He hasn’t won the French Open since 2009, and the US Open since 2008, but he was one point away on Centre Court last year. According to Federer’s statement, he’ll back in time to try for his ninth title at the All England Club. Nobody wants to have to recover from knee surgery, but if there was a time for Federer to do it, this was it.
Federer, at Wimbledon in 2019. (Getty Images)
Federer has been here before. In February 2016, he underwent surgery after tearing the meniscus in his left knee. He returned that spring, but struggled. After losing to Milos Raonic in the Wimbledon semifinals, he took the rest of the year off. But what looked like the possible end of the line for Federer—he turned 35 that summer—was in fact a prelude to a late-career renaissance. In his first tournament back in 2017, he won the Australian Open.
What, if anything, does Federer’s 2016-2017 tell us about his 2019? It depends which comeback you choose.
Looking at his return to Wimbledon in 2016, it seems clear that it won’t be easy for him to shake off surgery and perform at the same level on grass right away. He nearly lost to Marin Cilic in the quarterfinals, threw in two inexplicable double faults at a crucial moment again Raonic in the semis, and ended up slipping on the turf in the fifth set and aggravating his knee injury. This obviously wasn’t the Federer we had come to expect on grass.
Federer, at Wimbledon in 2016. (Getty Images)
Those looking for a more upbeat forecast should focus on his 2017 comeback in Australia. Despite having not played a real match in six months, and having not won a major title in nearly five years, Federer made it through three five-set matches Down Under, including one against Rafael Nadal in the final, to win his 18th major title.
What does Federer’s surgery this year mean for him long-term? It’s possible that the time off will leave him fresher and more eager to play in the second half of 2020. But it also seems clear that Federer’s career will end not because of an erosion in his skills or his speed or his desire to play. It will end because the injuries will pile up and prevent him from giving his best at the tournaments he wants to win most. At last year’s US Open, he lost in the quarterfinals due in part to an injury. At this year’s Australian Open, he nursed another injury to the semifinals. No matter how much Federer wants to add more majors to his total, I doubt he’ll compete in them for long if injury becomes the norm.
For now, the Big 3 has become the Big 2. Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal are both healthy and confident at the moment, and along with Dominic Thiem, they may already have been looking ahead to a three-man showdown in Paris. Will they begin to look ahead to Wimbledon, too? Either way, Rafa and Novak will be the big drawing cards everywhere they go this spring. Those tournaments—Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid, Rome, Paris—can only hope that Federer’s absence this year will make him more likely to want to play again, in a possible farewell tour, in 2021.
At the start of this season, before this curveball came down the pike, I wrote that Djokovic would win the Australian Open, Nadal would win the French Open, and Federer would win Wimbledon. I wasn’t exactly going out on a limb then, but I will go out on a limb now by sticking with all of those predictions.