Comeback tales are the mother’s milk of our imaginations. Narratives of return and redemption fill most every crack and cranny of our lives. Goodness, the Bible gives us Lazarus, the prodigal son and, of course, Jesus.
The most operatic comeback in tennis was the over-the-top reemergence of Bjorn Borg. The 1991 return of the dreamy, 11-time Slam champ in Monte Carlo featured a mysterious spiritual advisor, a prince, numerous women and a conspiracy theory or two. After John McEnroe returned from his six-month sabbatical in 1986 he held forth in front of the media for nearly an hour in what was supposed to be a press conference but was more like a therapy session.
Andre Agassi’s 1998 return featured the glamorous star retrieving his own balls by chain link fences during gritty minor league matches in Vegas. Jimmy Connors came back to play the 1991 US Open and promptly gave us tennis’ most boisterous run. Thank God Monica Seles returned after recovering from being stabbed in the back. Jennifer Capriati battled with demons and tangled with the law, then won three Slams.
Then again, virtually every athlete has had to forge a comeback or two. Fans have long asked, “Where have you gone, Juan Martin del Potro?” Now we wonder whether No. 116 Andy Murray, Kei Nishikori or even Kim Clijsters will ever be able to battle back to the top. But the resurrection of a former No. 1 player – that Swiss lad named Federer – is something else.
Let’s not be ridiculous and put this guy in some divine context, even though Neil Harman said he was “touched by the Gods” and one Arab commentator said, “If Allah allows, and I’m sure he does, I’m changing my religion to Federerism.”
And though some might not want to anoint him with the GOAT crown, Rafa does have a winning record against him – and just as many Slams. Plus Novak Djokovic, with his ferocious intent, is racing up the GOAT trail. Monday the Serb will break Roger’s considerable record of 310 weeks at No. 1.
But, come on. This is Roger Federer. No one who’s ever picked up a tennis racket has given us such wonder. He fills vast arenas in a flash. On court, the man flows like a dream. He flicks mind-boggling winners. His spontaneity dazzles. He reveals a gymnast’s balance. Yes, he battles and claws, but somehow he makes it look balletic. The variety of his genius draws comparisons with Leonardo da Vinci. His athletic musicality brings Mozart to mind.
Yet for too long, the man who transcends the game, the guy who more than any other stirs the milkshake, has been out of the conversation.
Oddly, just as COVID was beginning to amp up, Roger went down. After drawing 51,954 South African fans to a Capetown stadium, the 39-year-old’s career ground to a halt, sidelined by arthroscopic knee surgeries in February and June. Fans were left to chew on small crumbs. A simple winter video of him hitting balls on an Alpine backboard hardly filled our void. His social media conversations with Rafa and Stefan Edberg drew interest. Tea leaf readers wondered what a congratulatory note he sent Nadal really meant. All the while, tennis craved the return of its main man.
This week, in distant Doha, it will happen. At the ATP Qatar Open, Roger will face Britain’s Dan Evans or France’s Jeremy Chardy in his first official match since he fell to Djokovic in the 2020 Australian Open semis, 13 months ago.
While this world still yearns for a COVID-free normalcy, planet tennis should be getting back in orbit. The Swiss sheriff is back in town. But will he still be able to enforce the law?
Roger asserts the GOAT race is these days an afterthought. Beating Pete Sampras’ record of 14 Slams was once a big deal, but now he’s focusing on himself. The GOAT race is more important to his team than to himself. To Federer it doesn’t matter all that much that while he was sidelined, Nadal equaled his record of 20 Slams and a new generation of players advanced: Dominic Thiem claimed the US Open and Daniil Medvedev rose to No. 2.
In Doha, Roger told the media, “I know it’s on the rare side for almost a 40-year-old to come back after a year being out. What’s important is, I’m injury and pain-free,” he said. “The pain is completely under control.”
That wasn’t always the case. While longevity is one of his great assets and few have had such mastery of their body, Roger had no idea it would take so long to return. He said had to “start from scratch, right from the bottom up.”
And here’s a newsflash: even Roger Federer gets the blues.
“I was not doing well,” he confided. “I would go for a walk with the kids, or go for a bike ride and come back, and I would have a swollen knee and I wouldn’t understand what was happening, because training was actually going very well for the first four or five weeks, and progress was quick. I was down. I couldn’t believe I had to do a second operation. This was a moment when you question everything a little bit more.”
Questions still swirl for a man whose first major injury came in 2016 when he was giving his kids a bath. Will a quirky move in practice, a marathon match, or a dicey plane flight derail his hopes for glory in his twilight? Yes, we will see much evidence of his genius, but will he again be able to fashion runs deep into Slams?
Insiders report that Roger has five goals for the year: staying fit, Wimbledon, the Olympics, the US Open and Boston’s Laver Cup.
In Doha, Federer seemed focused. “The only real concern I have: is the knee going to hold up? As of now I’m not sure. I did everything I possibly could…There’s a lot to look forward to, and some uncertainties, which is normal when you’ve been out for so long.”
Roger, who’s withdrawn from the Miami Open on hard courts, hopes to play some of the clay circuit. “I know I need to go back to training again,” he said. “It’s just about building up to being stronger, better, fitter, faster and all that stuff…I hope by Wimbledon I’m going to be 100%, and that’s when the season starts for me.”
As for the big picture, Roger revealed, “Retirement was never really in the cards. It’s really more a conversation if the knee keeps bothering me for months and months to come.”
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.”
At least for this wonderful week, one of the greatest athletes the world has ever known is indeed back in the conversation.