What Roger Federer's Australian Open withdrawal does and doesn't mean

What Roger Federer's Australian Open withdrawal does and doesn't mean

It's understandable if any other 39-year-old pro athlete hints at retirement, but Federer is obviously not any just other 39-year-old pro athlete.

“I hope that there will be something to see with me next year,” Roger Federer told reporters earlier this month at the Switzerland Sport Awards. “If not, then that’s an unbelievable end point.”

“End point”: They were just two short words, but they were enough to send a shock wave through the sports world. Was Federer really hinting that he wouldn’t be able to play in 2021, or ever again? No offense to the Switzerland Sports Awards, which named him the greatest Swiss athlete of the last 70 years, but most of us expected Federer to take his final bows on a somewhat grander stage.

If those two words, end point, had been uttered by virtually any other 39-year-old professional athlete, they wouldn’t have come as a surprise, or stirred up as much glum chatter. But Federer is obviously not any just other 39-year-old pro athlete.

He remains, for one, the most popular tennis player of his generation, and possibly of any generation. Despite having played just six matches in 2020, Federer won the ATP’s fan favorite award for the 18th straight season. For millions of those fans, the only shred of hope they could cling to during this most wretched of years was the knowledge that Federer was planning to return to the court in 2021. There was even reason to believe that, despite his advanced age and two recent knee surgeries, there could be more big titles to come. Federer, after all, has made a career out of defying expectations about how long a tennis player can remain at the top of the game. The last time he came back from knee surgery, in 2017, he jumped off the sidelines and won the Australian Open in his first tournament back.

But as we found out this weekend, that’s not going to happen in 2021. Federer had hinted earlier in December that he might not be ready for the rigors of a Grand Slam event by the time the Aussie Open kicks off on February 8, and yesterday tournament director Craig Tiley made it official that Federer has withdrawn. Federer’s agent, Tony Godsick, says that he’s busy drawing up his 2021 schedule, which will start later in February. That is, of course, if the coronavirus allows a schedule to be made.

Is this an action shot or a work of art? With Federer, it's both. (Getty Images)

As many fans have joked this month, a Federer retirement would be “so 2020.” What better way for tennis to contribute to such a calamitous year? And it could still happen. Federer may have been exaggerating when he said that the Switzerland Sport Awards could be his final hurrah, but the thought had obviously crossed his mind as he struggled to regain the strength and fitness he’ll need to survive a two-week event. Federer must have known that, at 39, the post-surgery recovery process would take longer than it has in the past, but the difficulty he has encountered still seems to have caught him by surprise. His body may have more unpleasant surprises in store for him in the coming months.

At the same time, while the Australian Open clearly means a lot to him—he has played it every year since 1998—it was never going to be the Holy Grail of his 2021. For Federer, that will always be Wimbledon. Even at his peak 15 years ago, he would begin each year with two goals: Finish No. 1 and win Wimbledon. If he had to choose between the two, I’m pretty sure he would have taken Wimbledon each time.

Like everyone else who has ever picked up a tennis racquet, that was the tournament he dreamed of winning; unlike everyone else, his game was ideally suited to the grass courts there. Of Federer’s 20 major titles, eight have come at Wimbledon. The last time the tournament was played, in 2019, he had two match points for his ninth. Federer has many things to look forward to in 2021, including the next edition of the Laver Cup, and his first appearance at the Olympics since 2012. But Wimbledon is the one place where he’ll still be a viable contender to win his 21st major title. Let’s hope the All England Club can stage The Championships this summer, if only to give Federer one more go-round on its lawns. If the end point should come anywhere, it should be there.

For the first half of Federer’s career, he redefined how well, and beautifully, the game could be played. For the second half, he redefined how long it can be played at the highest level. Before he came along, 30 was the retirement Rubicon; he’s extended it all the the way to 40. For his final act, wouldn’t it be fitting if he could stick around long enough to remind us what life, and tennis, was like before 2020 happened? The post-pandemic comeback that the world is set to make in 2021 won’t feel complete without one more Federer comeback, too.