In between showing the world that only a chosen few can pull off a Panama hat, critiquing his fans’ form, or calling for major changes within his sport, Roger Federer has been recovering/rehabbing from arthroscopic surgery on his right knee. It was the injury that ruined his Australian Open run (with just a little help from the automaton that is Novak Djokovic) and had him set to miss the clay-court season before the tour was stopped due to the coronavirus.
Today Federer announced that he’s had a setback and will miss the rest of the season.
What that season is exactly, no one’s sure. Both Djokovic and Rafael Nadal said this week they weren’t very keen on playing the still scheduled-as-normal U.S. Open in August (though some of Djokovic’s reasoning was on-brand weird). And as New York City has been the hardest hit area of the country by the virus, it’s still unknown if it can even host the event.
Both men’s and women’s tours are paused through July. There have been some domestic tournaments/exhibitions either played or scheduled for players to return to match play, but when the actual WTA and ATP tours will resume hasn’t been decided.
So the question is what Federer will actually miss. The French Open has been re-slotted for late September, and that is the more likely of the two majors left to go off as planned. But Federer wasn’t planning on playing that at its normal time, so it’s not really much of a loss for him. Combined with the fact that everyone is basically a jobber to Nadal at Roland Garros, and it’s even less of a miss. His personal baby, the Laver Cup in Boston, was delayed a year to 2021. He’ll miss the fall indoor season and the ATP championship if all those go as planned or modified.
But, as always with Fed at this point of his career, any missed time or injury raises the question of just how much longer he’ll be a part of the top conversation, or just how much longer he’ll be around at all. Federer himself will point to the ’17 season. He missed the back half of the 2016 season after arthroscopic surgery on his other knee, returned as a No. 17 seed at the Australian Open, and proceeded to win it and then Wimbledon without dropping a set. He also added two Masters 1000 events in between, Indian Wells and Miami. He claimed the Australian Open again in ‘18 to get to his current Slam total of 20. So there’s precedent for Fed being quite sharp after a long absence.
But that will have been four years in his rear-view window when he returns to the court, and he’ll be 39. Thirty-nine might not sound much older than 35, but four years can be much longer than that in professional sports, and he’ll have three more years of mileage on the odometer than he did in ’17. Federer won’t have played a competitive match in a year, with two knees now that have been under the scope and a back that’s been an issue for him off and on for years.
It’s possible that by the time Federer returns, Nadal could have tied him at 20 grand slam titles or even passed him, if the U.S. Open happens and the Spaniard were to win that as well as the French. Or Djokovic could have pulled to within one. Which will only kick into a higher gear the just as annoying as MJ-vs-LeBron debate about which of the three is the best ever.
Unless disaster strikes, Federer will almost certainly want to attack the 2021 season with abandon. There’s the rescheduled Olympics to consider, and though Federer has a gold medal for doubles with Stan Wawrinka, he has never won the gold in singles. That is most certainly on his to-do list, along with trying to remain atop the Grand Slam titles pile as long as possible.
But should the ’21 season go sideways, either physically, results-wise, or both, we might finally be staring at the end for Federer. Certainly, there can’t be too many more seasons left for him. He’ll want to go out on his shield. We’ll see if his body, at 39, will let him.