Among the questions left unanswered after Roger Federer’s quarter final upset at Wimbledon is not the ones regarding his legacy or whether he is the greatest to have graced the men’s game. Well, the question of greatness is at the best of times a divisive one and is kept open-ended by the emergence of new kids on the block who show the promise and potential to overhaul past records. But what is uncertain right now is whether this was Federer’s last appearance at a grand slam or if the Swiss maestro has hidden reserves of energy he can draw on for future conquests. Here’s a look at the key factors that would have a bearing on his decision.
In 2003, when he first won the senior men’s singles title at Wimbledon, which also was his first slam victory, Federer was aged 21 years. That win had come five years after he had taken both the boys’ singles and doubles titles at the same event. On August 8 this year, he hits 40.
The last slam won by Federer was the Australian Open in 2018, when he was aged a little over 36 years. The record for the oldest man to win a singles slam title is held by Australian Ken Rosewall, who won the Australian Open in 1972 when he was about two months over 37. Had Federer won the last slam singles final he played, the 2019 Wimbledon, he would have broken Rosewall’s record.
American Pete Sampras (14) and Swede Bjorn Borg (11), the only other players in the Open era to win more than 10 grand slams, retired from tennis aged 32 and 26, respectively. Bjorg’s was a shock decision and he did make a comeback to the sport in 1991, aged 34, but never managed to reached the heights he had in the first phase of his professional career.
Federer, of course, with his 20 wins, shares the record for the most number of singles slam titles with Rafael Nadal of Spain. And the duo is tailed closely by Novak Djokovic of Serbia, who has 19 slam titles to his credit. While Nadal is aged 35 years, Djokovic, who beat the Spaniard in the 2021 French Open final, is 34 years old.
Together, as much for their sheer dominance as for the duration that they’ve been at it, this trio has been regarded as the best that men’s singles tennis has ever witnessed at play.
Topflight sport is injury-prone and the war and tear that sportsmen go through has cut short many a promising career. But Federer has been seen as being seemingly injury-free in his long career thanks to mainly to his style of play with many fans and experts alike marvelling at how he seems to glide on court. The master of the elegant strokes is known neither for serving big or packing a punch in every shot, as do the likes of Djokovic and Nadal, but that doesn’t mean he has never complained of injuries.
Last year, with a part of tennis season gone due to Covid-19 — the Wimbledon was suspended, the only slam that didn’t go ahead amid the pandemic — Federer announced that he had undergone two surgeries on his knee. The first arthroscopic surgery on his right knee was done in February 2020 and it was followed up by another in June.
On recovery trail, he decided to sit out this year’s Australian Open and then withdrew after three rounds from the French Open as he conserved his energy for the Big W, his favourite slam which he has won eight times. But that cost him match fitness and he landed up in England having competed in only four tournaments since the Australian Open in 2020.
Before the knee, it was his back that caused Federer much trouble and saw him suffer a great drop in form during the 2013 season. That year he slid from No.2 to No.7 in the world and saw his run of 36 straight grand slam quarterfinals finally end with a second round defeat at Wimbledon. It was also the first year since 2002 that he did not reach a major final. Federer first complained of the back injury that was blamed for the decline in form in the early rounds of that year’s Indian Wells competition though that was not the first time that he had picked up such an injury.
According to International Tennis Federation data, Federer has an 81 per cent win record overall in all ITF, ATP and Davis Cup matches that he has played. That is, 1,316 wins out of a total of 1,628 matches. Not surprisingly, the best record is on grass, where he has won 86 per cent of all matches that he has played, followed by hard courts with an 83 per cent win rate. The success rate on clay court is 71 per cent.
In 2019, the year before he went for the knee surgeries, Federer played 65 matches, winning 55 of those. Again, grass gave him best results with a win record of 92 per cent followed by hard court (83 per cent).
But in all of 2020 he just played six matches, winning five of them. Then came the no-show at the Australian Open and the withdrawal from the French Open.
Federer had said he’d chase an elusive Olympic singles gold at Tokyo this year but that may be in the balance after his Wimbledon exit. It was Wimbledon that he had in mind through all the tournaments he sat out and now that this year’s campaign has ended speculation is rife that it may have made his last stand on grass. While Federer has not confirmed his retirement, he has not ruled out a return either.
“I’m actually very happy I made it as far as I did here and I actually was able to play Wimbledon at the level that I did after everything I went through. Of course I would like to play it again, but at my age you’re just never sure what’s around the corner," he said after his quarter-final loss to Pole Hubert Hurkacz.
But eternal optimists may take hope from his response to the question whether he was calling it quits: “No, I hope not… The goal is to play, of course."