Early in 2010, tennis was aglow in the glory of Roger Federer. His prime rival, Rafa Nadal, sang his praises. And even Roger, who was coming off a run of reaching 18 of the last 20 Slam finals, embraced the giddy celebratory mindset. He again emerged on court at the 2010 Wimbledon sporting the equivalent of royal robes – a cream outfit with gold trim and noble embroidery. Just as historians wondered if a tennis player had ever been put on such a pedestal, tennis was shaken.
Goodness, prior to the 2010 Wimbledon, the Mighty Fed had briefly blinked. He lost seven matches to the likes of Alberto Montanes and Marcos Baghdatis. He was bumped out of the French Open in the quarters and gave up his No. 1 ranking. For the first time in nearly seven years, he would fall to No. 3. Plus, the father of twin girls was almost 30 in an era that saw many a great champ (Borg, McEnroe, Becker, Edberg, and Sampas) fade or retire by their early 30s. Some even whispered, “Is this Roger’s autumn sonata?”
Then, in the 2010 Wimbledon quarters, he fell to Czech Tomas Berdych. Headlines blared: “The Wolves are Circling” – “Roger, Over and Out.” The Federerian sky seemed to be falling. Jon Wertheim noted, “He’s won everything in sight, so forgive the guy if his hunger isn’t exactly at Donner Party levels.”
Roger said, “I got the unlucky bounce once in a while. I definitely gave away this match.” He reported that he was hurting and couldn’t concentrate.
Writer Peter Bodo suggested, “It wasn’t his back that failed and it wasn’t his legs. It was his nerve. That’s how it is when a great champion’s determination and courage begin to ebb. And, like the proverbial cuckold, he is always the last to know.”
ESPN’s Greg Garber added that, for years, “the forensic psychologists in the tennis world have been searching for the hidden arc – the jewel-encrusted relic that would indicate Federer is no longer the dominant player in the game…[Now] they might have found it.”
Inside Tennis observed, “Too many times we’ve seen the baron of balance off his game, scampering from corner to corner, lunging or leaping, defensive and revealing just the slightest hint of desperation. We wondered, ‘Where is the serene artist who once flawlessly used the court as a canvas for his Picasso strokes? Does his forehand still have its bite? Has he lost a fraction of his speed?’ Certainly, his once imposing fear factor has faltered. All the while, Federer’s face, awash with worry, squinting one moment and solemn the next – reveals that his confidence is wavering. But beware! This is an athlete apart, the greatest of all time…it is impossible to underestimate his pride, his athleticism, his will for victory, his hunger. Still, there is no stopping age; everything must pass. The field is rising and will have its day.”
Well – not so fast. The field is still in breathless pursuit. The Good Ship Federer has hardly sunk. Longevity has proved to be one of Roger’s greatest assets. After his 2010 dip, he returned to No. 1 in 2012. He reached nine more Slam finals and won four of them. Once again, tennis bowed in appreciation of the maestro who defies time. Never mind his receding hairline and deepening wrinkles. On March 10, after two knee surgeries and a 13-month layoff, the 39-year-old father of four, the stroke-meister who transformed the game and has nothing to prove, re-emerged on the battlefield.
It wasn’t easy. In Doha he revealed that even Roger gets the blues. He would go for a bike ride or a walk with his kids and feel swelling in his knee and get down on himself. He couldn’t believe he had to have a second operation and confided, “I was not doing well.”
Eventually Roger became pain free and emerged to play two matches at the ATP Qatar Open. There we saw flashes of sheer brilliance from the genius who’s drawn comparisons with Leonardo da Vinci, and whose athletic musicality brings Mozart to mind.
But he’d been sidelined for 400 days. In his first match he forgot about the tour’s new rules about towels and shot clocks. But he didn’t forget how to win. In three sets he beat his frequent practice partner, Brit Dan Evans. But the next day the power of the considerable, but slumping Nikoloz Basilashvili was too much for Roger. Feet slow, legs tired, head down, expression glum, at times he battled both himself and his foe. There were few highlight reel shots. His body language didn’t impress. One commentator was blunt: “The 39-year-old is being bullied and buffeted around this court.” Roger missed easy shots. Amazingly, Roger did have a match point, but, as in seven of his matches since 2017, he couldn’t convert. Ultimately, he endured a slow beatdown, a 6-3, 1-6, 5-7 defeat that wasn’t easy to watch and left us asking many questions.
Will his knee hold up? Could losing to less talented players soon get old for Roger? Will he again be able to fashion runs deep into Slams? Or, on the other hand, if he does score a shock win at Wimbledon or the Olympics, will he then walk away? Or is a retirement at this year’s Laver Cup in Boston or at his hometown tourney in Basil in October a logical move?
Roger was clear that while he was sidelined, “Retirement was never really in the cards.” He did withdraw from Dubai and Miami and now plans to play some clay tourneys. For him, he says, the season will begin at Wimbledon. While he was candid that he wasn’t 100% in Doha, he viewed the tourney as “a stepping stone…that gave me a lot of answers.” He navigated through a lot of tough moments. At times he was explosive. Often he came forward. It was good to play two tough three-set matches, and he left Doha with a swirl of emotions: excitement, gratitude, doubt and delight.
For now, he said, he still enjoys playing. “I just feel like the story’s not over yet…I would like to get that high of playing against the best players, playing at the biggest tournaments, winning them, hopefully, and being in the conversation.”
In other words, Roger’s 11-year autumn sonata happily goes on.