It's birthday time which means it's time for a bit of appreciation.
Roger Federer turned 40 on Sunday but let's put the GOAT debate on hold - come on, who was that shouting Novak at the back? - and remember for a little while just how lucky we are to have enjoyed one of the GOATs - we can all agree on that can't we...? - for the last 23 years. The glorious single handed backhand, the ever-so graceful movement, the effortless serve, the high backhand sliced drop shot from the baseline (*chef's kiss*), the beaming smile, the countless ultra-high quality matches, the SABR, the cream Wimbledon jacket (*chef’s kiss*), the artistry, the sheer genius…
If you haven’t appreciated most of the above then you should probably firstly have a good look at yourself, and then start to soon. For while life may start at 40 for some, a tennis career certainly doesn't.
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That the 20-time Grand Slam winner is still playing – and reaching major quarter-finals - as he enters his 41st year is something to treasure. How many other truly great sport stars do we get to see play into their 40s? Tom Brady, who turned 44 less than a week ago, is setting a very, very high standard for 40-plus-year-olds in the NFL, but otherwise the field is small. Even more so in tennis, where very few have had much success beyond 35. Federer is just the second player, male or female, to be in the Top 10 aged 40 or oever since ATP and WTA rankings started in the 1970s. Pete Sampras – who Federer so memorably beat in his breakthrough Wimbledon moment in 2001 – retired at 32. Andre Agassi and John McEnroe retired at 36. Jimmy Connors was one of the few to push it beyond 40, but he was fading in his latter years.
Federer admitted at Wimbledon that he didn't plan to play this long. "I don’t think my goal was to play until 39 or 40 or more. It was more like 35, which was already a high number at the time...This all mainly came the last years. I never thought also with the last surgeries I’ve had that I would still be going.”
Even as he turns 40, it’s hard to say definitively what direction is Federer heading. He has only played five tournaments this year and in his most recent he made the quarter-finals, beating three top-50 players along the way. His Wimbledon exit was sudden – especially the 6-0 final set against Hubert Hurkacz – but there seems to be the desire from Federer to continue. And would that exist if he didn’t believe he could win a tournament again?
Rafael Nadal’s former coach, and uncle, Toni Nadal, said last month that he believes Federer will call time on his career when he thinks he has “no chance of victory”.
“Regardless of the end of his tennis career, nothing and nobody will be able to taint the prestige that the great Swiss tennis player has given to the history of tennis,” wrote Nadal in El Pais.
“I wish him, of course, one more time with all of us and, above all, a farewell tour so that the fans of the big tournaments can show him, once again, their great affection and admiration."
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If a farewell tour is to happen, it’s difficult right now to gauge when it will be. Federer has pulled out of Toronto and Cincinnati due to the knee injury that kept him out of the Olympics. Unless he recovers soon he may well not play at the US Open, which starts on August 30, and then how much he plays the rest of the year remains unclear. The Laver Cup in Boston appears to be part of his plan and he might play the rescheduled Masters event in Indian Wells on October 10. Maybe there's a chance that, health permitting, Federer looks to really push himself over the back end of the season to truly see where he is at physically and how he wants to attack the 2022 season. When he returned this year after missing most of 2020 it was difficult to imagine that Federer put in the intense rehab work he did just to return for a few events. But then perhaps he has seen, and felt, enough in those events to realise that his time at the top is coming to an end?
He has acknowledged that his comeback is a "huge challenge", and in aiming to win Slams at the age of 40 he is trying to do something that no man or woman has ever achieved before. Ken Rosewall is the oldest man to win a major at the age of 37 in 1972 while a 35-year-old Serena Williams holds the women's record after winning in 2017.
"No matter how much he works, he can not get any younger,” said the great Martina Navratilova about Federer after Wimbledon.
“Also, he maybe wants to work harder but your older so you can't work as hard as you really want to. So it just gets complicated and maybe father time is finally catching up. His weaknesses were shown [at Wimbledon] and also another thing that happens when you're older and have a slightly off day, it's a worse off-day than it was 10 years ago."
Federer needs just 23 more wins to match Jimmy Connors’ record of 1,274 tour-level victories. Whether he gets there seems to depend on his health and his desire to continue playing if he is no longer getting into the latter stages of tournaments. Like Murray, it will take significant improvement from here for Federer to have any post-surgery victories that will surpass everything else he has achieved in his career. It also seems unlikely right now that Federer is going to go out on the same sort of high as Sampras, whose final tournament was winning his 14th Grand Slam at the US Open.
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So where is the end game as Federer turns 40? Is there even an end game right now? Perhaps there is a chance he could surprise everyone and play for a few more years. Novak Djokovic might be supportive of that idea after saying in his birthday message to Federer that he believes the sport still “needs” him. “You keep inspiring all of us. It has been a huge honour to share the tennis court with you for the last 15 years and hopefully you can keep on playing. The sport needs you. I wish you health, love and happiness with your close ones. Thanks for everything you have done and for showing that even at that age we can play at a very high level.”
Felix Auger Aliassime, who is 19 years younger than Federer and beat him in Halle in June, said that he thinks Federer remains “amazing for the sport”.
“Thank you for everything you have done for tennis, it’s so good to still have you around.”
Most players and fans probably feel the same: that it’s great to still have Federer playing on the tour. But while it was special to have him back at Wimbledon, it wasn't because he was producing the special performances like he once did. Djokovic himself is now setting the standard and Auger Aliassime is one of a number of young players breaking through at the top who probably have the belief that they can now beat Federer. Does tennis still “need” Federer if he can’t compete with the very best players any longer? Or is it almost time for the farewell tour?
Time seems to be the key factor. At 40, and having played so little tennis over the last 18 months, time is clearly not on Federer’s side. But he has already demonstrated on several occasions during his comeback that he is not going to rush into anything. How much longer will he continue down the same path? And how much more time will he be afforded?
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