The only valid question that remains is: does Roger Federer think his time is up?
Fans who feel let down when Federer loses should ask themselves: does the joy of having Federer on court for a few hours eclipse the days of pain they might feel later?
July 11, 2021 / 06:13 PM IST
File photo of Roger Federer. Despite his sliding form, there is no dip in TV ratings when Federer, 39, walks on court. If anything, he drives them even higher, courtesy him being a crowd favourite.
‘He’s earned the right to decide when to quit’, is possibly the worst argument in all of sport—just ask an Indian cricket fan who’s had to endure superstars after superstars, playing at the highest level, well beyond their sell-by-date. Yet, in Roger Federer’s case, this may just be the perfect defence in the face of growing calls for his retirement.
For one, professional tennis isn’t a team sport; therefore, the question of any ‘star’ robbing a deserving youngster’s spot in the team doesn’t arise. And even though a national flag is displayed alongside the name of a player at every grand slam, his participation at that tournament is entirely in an individual capacity; there are no selectors, administrators or other such assorted stakeholders he needs to answer. With that, the only valid question that remains is—does Roger think his time is up?
“I’m actually very happy I made it as far as I did here, and was able to play Wimbledon after everything I went through. I would like to play it again…”
But what of the wishes and desires of the real stakeholders then—the Roger Federer fans—most of whom have been left hurting by his early exit from Wimbledon, and would now prefer to see their hero walk into the sunset than harm his legacy by being bageled by a player who, till recently, had never gone past the second round of a grand slam.
For starters, the despondent fans may want to ask themselves an important question: Are they judging Federer’s performance at an individual level— replete with its own unique circumstances like age, injury, lack of game time, rising competition? Or are they guilty of comparing his dipping graph with the continuing rise of his two closest rivals, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, which in-turn is making the recent loss even more difficult to bear?
If it’s the former, then that should dispel all this retirement talk. How else would you define a good result after an 18-month injury layoff if not a grand slam quarter-final? But if it’s the latter, the Federer fan brigade can then be accused of treating a man that’s brought them pure joy, for almost 20 years, unfairly.
Perhaps the Swiss Maestro is himself to be blamed for spoiling his fanbase with his 2017 comeback from a similar knee injury. He spent six months on the sidelines before coming back to win three out of the four grand slams he played in. Not only was he moving as fluidly as ever, new tactical ideas like the SABR attack (a chip and attack technique) gave him more teeth on court.
But, that was four years ago. Federer at 40, faces an entirely different proposition. And he knows it.
“I have a lot of ideas on the court, but sometimes I can’t do what I want to do,” he was quick to admit after losing to 24-year-old Hubert Hurkacz.
It’s a situation we’ve all experienced. It’s when the mind draws from past experiences and orders you to execute a certain manoeuvre, only for the body, which has aged since, refusing to obey. No matter what sport or what level of competition, this internal conflict is universal.
But, as things stand, it is highly improbable that lack of grand slam titles in the last few years could be the determining factor in Roger deciding his future course of action, nor will this be the root cause of his fandom’s disenchantment. Four grand slam titles in the last eleven years has meant that expectation levels haven’t been sky-high anyway. The worrying bit though is against whom those losses are coming. Whilst previously, big guns like Djoko and Nadal were largely responsible for knocking him out of prominent tournaments, losses against lesser known players such as Aliassime, Andujar and Basilashvili are gradually beginning to pile up.
That then brings us to the question about motivation: why must a certified champion have to bear the ignominy of being branded as an also-ran?
The answer to that may lie in the question itself; when a man’s won all there is to win, there’s nothing left to prove. The pressure is off. And if he now derives joy from playing the sport at the highest level—fit and eligible to do so—why must he stop?
And then there’s the gratification that a fan experiences watching Federer play. Despite his sliding form, there is no dip in TV ratings when a 39-year-old Federer walks on court, if at all, he drives them even higher, courtesy him being a crowd favourite. The man still drives and dominates social media conversations. The fact that he’s also the second highest earner through endorsements, across sports, during 2020-21—a year where he did precious little on the court—ahead of the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, LeBron James and Tiger Woods, proves Brand Federer hasn’t eroded either. And then, what of those wow-moments that he produces so often on court? Their frequency may have reduced, but they can still be spotted ever so often—the whipping, cross-court forehand in the seventh game of the third set against Sonego, last week, remember?
So, the next time Roger Federer fails to meet those lofty standards he’s set for himself, and you feel let down, ask yourself—doesn’t the jouissance of him performing on court for a few hours eclipse the days of pain you experience watching him being bageled?