Welcome to Tennis Elbow, the column that looks back on the week that was in the world of tennis. This week, Charles Blouin-Gascon starts to anticipate the worst for the great Roger Federer.
Is it too early to start worrying about Roger Federer?
Or let’s put it another way, sure. If the Swiss has always said that he has wanted to keep playing tennis as long as he could do so at the highest level possible, is it time to worry about whether the Swiss will retire in a medium-to-near future?
Because the 2021 season is now underway and the great Swiss is nowhere to be seen. He’s withdrawn from the upcoming Australian Open for the first time since the 1998 season, which is the same thing as saying for the first time since his rookie season.
Oh sure, there are rumours that the real reason that Federer is missing in action in Melbourne is because of Australia’s strict quarantine policy due to COVID-19 and the problems it would cause for someone with a wife and kids, and not because of enduring problems with the two knee operations he’s undergone last year.
But if you feel like that’s really a point in Federer’s favour, then you might want to re-read the last part of the previous sentence. The 39-year-old is missing a Grand Slam event he hasn’t missed in 23 years for reasons unrelated to the two knee procedures he had a year ago; not exactly confidence-inspiring, is it?
At the time we’re writing this, the Swiss has gone almost a full calendar year without playing tennis. His last official match came in the Australian Open semifinals last year, a straight-sets loss against eventual winner Novak Djokovic. This match came ever so close of not happening at all as Federer needed not one but two five-set wins against John Millman and Tennys Sandgren in the third round and the quarterfinals of the event.
But this is where you tell us that this all happened a year ago and in a pre-pandemic world. This is a new year and a new world, you say, and Federer will come back to the tour recharged, healthy and well-rested. (After so many months off, you had better hope that’s the case.)
But what if he doesn’t?
Could it be too little, too late? The odds are stacked against Federer. Unless the pandemic halts play once more, soon the rankings points will revert back to the old system and if and when that happens, Federer sure has to start playing and start winning matches, lest he wants to start falling down much lower than his current No. 5 slot.
It’s no secret that at this point in 2021, the end is near for the 39-year-old; the fact that he turned pro literally last millennium should tell you all you need to know. There is also the fact that over the past couple of seasons, his play has lagged behind that of the top handful of players in men’s tennis, a telltale sign if there ever is one.
It’s been that way for a few years now too. There was even a time last decade when he went almost five full years, between the 2012 Wimbledon and the 2017 Australian Open, without a major title; for the average player this would be fine, but for a god like Federer this felt like an eternity. He managed to right the ship in Melbourne after a long layoff due to injury, but for a while we really thought it was over for him.
If Federer is to come back as good as he has, the above scenario is probably the best he can hope for.
Because the picture is pretty grim right now: he has had to withstand and nurse two knee procedures, hasn’t played in almost a full year, wasn’t particularly fearsome when he last played and will turn 40 years old before the end of this new season.
He’s long made a habit of pushing back against the seemingly impossible, but this may be too much even for a player of his caliber.
In 2021 and beyond, it’s up to Federer himself to prove it to the rest of us.
Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG