Damien’s Spin: Will Roger Federer make another successful comeback?

Thursday, Feb 27

Photo: Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

We’ve had the pleasure of watching Roger Federer perform his ballet-like version of tennis since his first professional match in July of 1998. That’s an incredibly long time. It becomes even more remarkable when you stop and consider all those players who came on the tennis tour after him and left before him.

The latest to join that long list is Maria Sharapova. At the second Wimbledon competition I ever attended in person, Federer, at age 22, managed to defend the men’s singles title he’d won the year before. He was joined in the winner’s circle by Sharapova, a 17-year-old starlet who charmed the London tabloids and the All-England Club by upsetting Serena Williams in the final. Federer was already establishing himself as the best in the game, Sharapova was just getting started.

This week, Sharapova announced that at age 32, she is retiring. There are many reasons, but constant shoulder problems are obviously a big part of it, and injuries in general. Since returning from a drug suspension in 2017, Sharapova has only been able to win one tournament, never quite returning to her previous heights when she captured five Grand Slam singles titles. But to the end, she remained a big draw, one of the grittiest competitors on the WTA Tour and a marquee name for any tournament that had her as a participant.

Federer, 38, is also battling injuries, notably a right knee injury that he recently announced will keep him off the ATP Tour until June after undergoing arthroscopic surgery this month in Switzerland. He will miss five events, including Dubai, Indian Wells, Bogota, Miami and the French Open.

“My right knee has been bothering me for a little while,” said Federer. “I hoped it would go away, but after an examination, and a discussion with my team, I decided to have arthroscopic surgery.
“I can’t wait to be back playing again soon – see you on the grass.”

Notice – not a hint of retirement. Not a scintilla of doubt he plans to be back playing this season. Indeed, after coming within a point of winning his ninth Wimbledon title last year, he seemed to already be savouring another attempt this year.

Dealing with injuries has become a bigger part of Federer’s tennis life in recent years after he was extraordinarily durable for so long, a big reason why he was able to surpass Pete Sampras’ record of Grand Slam singles titles so quickly.

In February 2016, he tore the meniscus in his left knee and needed surgery. He came back, struggled, and after losing to Canada’s Milos Raonic in the Wimbledon semi-finals, he took the rest of the year off. That created a lot of speculation that at age 35, he might be finished. Instead, he came back in 2017 and promptly won the Australian Open, his 18th Grand Slam title.

So we already know that rehab and rest may prove to be helpful to the Swiss master.

Last year, a long list of top male pros retired, including Tomas Berdych, David Ferrer, Marcos Baghdatis, Nicolas Almagro, and Mikhail Youzhny. None of those players were older than 37. Federer outlasted them all, raising the possibility he might make it past his 40th birthday as a dominant player on the tour.

“Roger is Roger – the sport needs him,” said Novak Djokovic.

He’ll turn 39 on August 8 during this year’s Rogers Cup in Toronto, and it’s not hard to imagine what a draw he’ll be. He hasn’t played the tournament at its Toronto venue since 2014 when he made it all the way to the final before losing to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Federer has won the Rogers Cup twice, but not since 2006.

Athletes from Jaromir Jagr to Tom Brady have, in recent years, shown just how long a modern athlete’s career might stretch. In tennis, we know Jimmy Connors was just a shade under 40 when he played his last major event. Ken Rosewall played until age 44. Martina Navratilova was 49 when she won the mixed doubles title at the U.S. Open. Serena Williams, of course, is just a few weeks younger than Federer, and she’s giving no indication that retirement is on her agenda in the immediate future.

What’s interesting with Federer is that his skills don’t seem to be fading. It’s just a question of how much competition he can coax out of his body in the ruthless grind of the modern men’s tour.

There certainly also seems to be no decline in his desire to play. It may mean we will see him a little less on tour in the coming years as he conserves his energy and nurses various aches and pains.

But that may make us treasure those times even more.