Roger Federer’s injury absence a clear sign of decline but his resilience is a lesson to next generation
You could have been forgiven, judging by the devastated expression on his face as he walked off Centre Court at Wimbledon earlier this month, that Roger Federer, at the age of 34, had never won a major.
Losing in five sets to Milos Raonic in the semi-final left the Swiss gutted as his search for an 18th grand slam title was again denied, demonstrating yet again the hunger and desire that has propelled his remarkable career.
It is four years since the 17th championship, his seventh Wimbledon crown, was procured, and he has played in 15 majors since without being the overall winner, but if anything, the winless streak only appears to motivate Federer to push even harder to get back into the winners’ circle.
That wait will now stretch into 2017 at the very least after news came out late on Tuesday that he would miss the remainder of 2016, including next month’s Rio Olympics and the US Open in New York.
Federer has been advised to allow his left knee, which required surgery in February, a lengthier period to rehabilitate.
Federer had gone under the knife for the first time in his career after suffering a torn meniscus, but had only been out of action for two months before getting back on court at the Monte Carlo Masters.
He missed the French Open in May, ending a run of 65 successive grand slam appearances, but that was down to a back problem rather than the knee.
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But the exertions at Wimbledon, where he had superbly come from two sets down to beat Marin Cilic in the quarter-finals before failing to see off Raonic in the last four after being two sets to one up, clearly came at a cost.
Federer had not played since his Wimbledon exit almost three weeks ago. It was presumed he was gearing up for the Olympics and trying to win the one honour still missing from his trophy cabinet — an Olympic gold medal.
As it is, he now faces the lengthiest spell on the sidelines of his career, with the inevitable questions of whether this is the end for him at the top of the game.
Federer turns 35 next month and only Ken Rosewall, who won three titles after his 35th birthday, has won a major past that age.
The signs are not good with his body beginning to let him down, although it is an amazing accomplishment to think, given the demands and rigours of life on the tennis circuit that it took 18 years until he needed surgery.
While not a match for world No 1 Novak Djokovic over five sets anymore, the Swiss player remains one of the game’s top players, despite getting to an age where most of his fellow stars have long retired.
Andre Agassi played until he was 36, but Pete Sampras was 31, Andy Roddick was 30 to give recent examples.
Nowhere in Federer’s explanation of his break from the sport on Facebook did it sound like a retirement speech, and he even used the phrase “another few years” in his objectives.
In an age when you have players such as Bernard Tomic giving up in matches and coming out with lines like, “Would you care if you were 23 and worth over $US10 million (Dh36.7m)”, Federer’s attitude is fantastic.
The most successful player in men’s tennis is still pushing as hard as ever to win the biggest events in the sport, despite not being the top man anymore.
He has nothing to prove. He could retire today and his status as a legend of the sport is already cemented.
The fact he has remained so competitive is a credit to his heart and desire. If and when he does make his return early in January 2017, it will only add extra layers to his determination to claim that elusive 18th major.
Where Federer will be in the world rankings when he makes his return will be interesting, as he will lose a lot of points in the coming months.
He won in Cincinnati last year, reached the US Open final and won on home territory in Basel too, and while there will be other smaller points to lose too, those three are the big ones for the rest of the year.
Those are worth 2,700 points, and given Federer is on 5,945 at present, he will certainly drop down the order.
If you deduct those points right now, he falls to No 8 and is just a 100 points ahead of 9th ranked Dominic Thiem.
Quite where he will fall to is hard to predict given it will also depend on how other players fare in the rest of the year, but he certainly will not be No 3, where he stands right now, and it is completely feasible he could fall out of the top 10 for the first time since October 2002 by the end of the year.
That will not perturb Federer one bit if he does compete at the 2017 Australian Open outside the top 10. He is still a top four player right now, and moving back up the order will be part of the challenge he will welcome in his bid to win another grand slam.
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Updated: July 27, 2016 04:00 AM