“We can’t fool ourselves: we have not got 10 years remaining of Federer. He is one of the greatest icons of our sport and to have him away from the court is bad for everyone.”
Rafael Nadal spoke these words about his great rival, Roger Federer, in October of last year and sadly they perhaps carry even more relevance today. The 20-time Grand Slam champion, a mark he shares with Nadal and Novak Djokovic, has not stepped onto a tennis court since Wimbledon in June. Speaking in an Instagram video yesterday, the Swiss star announced he would be undergoing a knee operation that would keep him “out of the game for many months.”
While Federer’s illustrious career has endured more false endings than The Lord Of The Rings: Return Of The King, there was little encouragement to be taken from Federer stating, “I want to give myself a glimmer of hope to return to the tour in some shape or form.” The eight-time Wimbledon champion has defied the odds before, but aged 40 it is a tough ask for Federer to return to playing shape. If this is truly the end, he leaves behind a legacy we may only truly appreciate when we experience a sporting world without him.
Federer burst onto the scene in 2003, defeating Mark Philippoussis in straight sets to claim his first Grand Slam at Wimbledon. Federer’s primacy on grass would see him make SW19 a home away from home, his extraordinary 2003-2009 run would see him claim a further four titles there, along with five US Open championships and three Australian Opens. The emergence of Nadal saw Federer’s dominance of the sport seriously challenged for the first time.
Federer would lose his beloved Wimbledon to Nadal in 2008, as well as suffering a straight sets defeat to his rival in the final of the French Open. Roger would rebound to claim both titles the following year, surpassing Pete Sampras’ Grand Slam record to claim his 15th major title. The emergence of first Nadal, and then Djokovic, saw the erosion of Federer’s status as tennis’ undisputed king.
The fact that his adversaries wrestled control of the majority of tennis’ majors from Federer, to the point that both would eventually match his mark of 20 Grand Slams, has led some to discount Roger’s place in the debate surrounding the greatest player of the era. However, it is arguable we would not even have experienced the modern era of tennis without Federer’s influence. The first of the trio to emerge on the world scene, Federer was already firmly-established as one of the greats by the time Djokovic captured his first title, the 2008 Australian Open.
The former Switzerland Olympian closed the era of Sampras, Andre Agassi, Lleyton Hewitt and Andy Roddick and ushered in the age of Nadal, Djokovic and Andy Murray. Nadal and Djokovic may have equalled his achievements, and both currently have winning head-to-head records against Federer, but Roger’s influence goes beyond statistics.
Djokovic himself would concur, speaking after his Wimbledon victory in June he said, “I have to pay a great tribute to Rafa and Roger. They are legends of our sport and they are the two most important players that I’ve ever faced in my career. They are the reason that I am where I am today. They have helped me realize what I need to do in order to improve (and) get stronger mentally, physically, tactically.”
While the tennis world holds on to that “glimmer of hope” he speaks of, we will get a dry run of what the sport will be like without Roger Federer. Others may one day surpass his achievements, Djokovic in particular looks well placed to break out from the back and reach 21 Grand Slams at some point. But there is no doubt Federer deserves to be part of any debate about the greatest men to step on a court.
He has helped to usher in modern tennis as we know it, and has taken interest in the game to new heights through intriguing rivalries with Nadal and Djokovic. Miss him while he’s gone, but let’s all hope for one more miracle return.