Roger Federer never slips. However, you remember — and it feels like it’s assuredly past tense now — Federer’s greatness; it was always based on his movement. He always looked like he had enough time to blueprint several options for his next shot before choosing one, usually the perfect one. He just had more time than anyone else. Even when he was stressed, he didn’t look stressed. It was still part of the plan. He simply glided across the court like some schmaltzy tale about love at first sight when they walked into the room, and was always perfectly grounded and stable to unleash whatever piece of genius came next. There always felt like a flash of a pause, the ball just stopping for a half-second in air, like it was just as excited to see what Federer would do next.
That had to be the surest sign that if it hasn’t all come to an end for Federer, the end has surrounded the house and cut off the underground escape routes. In yesterday’s second set tiebreak, with an easy forehand smash at the net available, Federer slipped. And what was a gimme suddenly looked like Fed trying to foul off a slider to avoid a strikeout, except tennis doesn’t have “fouling off.” Federer never recovered, and in fact didn’t win another game, getting bageled in the third set.
Federer hasn’t ever looked like himself at Wimbledon, the place where he’s supposed to look the most like himself. Whatever deficiencies that age, injuries, and surgery have wreaked on him, the rewards of his aggressive, net-heavy play that grass bestows were supposed to even those out. It’s a setting that accentuates what he does well more than any other. But it didn’t. Forehands were sprayed from Brighton to Newcastle. His timing was never squared up. That furrowed brow look, when you know he’s not feeling it, was ever-present. He could be overpowered. He could have, and maybe should have, dropped at the first hurdle, saved only by an injury to Adrian Mannarino. He constantly looked out of answers.
Mostly, Federer just didn’t look like he had that amount of time. That he didn’t exist in that bubble where everything would slow and stop for him. He was always chasing.
Federer himself brought down the hammer of inevitability post-match, with phrases like “I’ll have to talk to my team,” and “the goal is to keep playing,” and “take time.” Those are the words you hear when someone is loading up retirement. It’s amazing that he’s been able to put it off this long, but it arrived in a hurry with two knee surgeries. Playing at 39 would be hard enough without breaking in a reconstructed joint. The soreness and fatigue from matches lasts longer, the bad days for no reason become more prevalent. Every opponent seems to get younger and faster.
It was impossible to design a perfect ending for Federer, though it almost certainly would have come at Wimbledon. Maybe the urgency to give it a try one more time stems from the last time he was there, when he had two match points on his serve against Novak Djokovic in the final and couldn’t close it out. Would he have come back if his last memory was holding the trophy? That would have been just about the best way.
Federer can find all the reasons to keep going for a bit if he wants. He’s still only had a handful of matches before this. He hadn’t played regularly in a year and a half. He needs even more time to get up to speed. No one wants their last match at their happiest setting to have ended with a 6-0 set.
But a retirement tour isn’t really his style. And you can’t see him grinding through the hard court season late this summer, the hardest on knees, to make up the numbers at the U.S. Open. Maybe he will just wash away the memory of yesterday. Maybe just to provide one or two more moments that take us back through the past 15 years, to live in that bubble where time stopped just a little more, if only for a glimpse.
Yesterday felt like more than just the end for a great player. Federer was tennis as art, illustrated and painted more than played. We’ll have the same feeling one day when Nadal can no longer be Tennis Overwhelmed, or farther down the line when Djokovic can no longer be Tennis Unlocked. All three played the game, and one still currently does, in a way that hadn’t really been envisioned before. Yesterday felt like one of those lights going out for good.