The end is drawing closer for Roger Federer.
The 40-year-old has played just five tournaments in the last 18 months, with his last appearance a straight-sets defeat in the quarter-finals of Wimbledon. He left SW19 saying he was “very happy” to have made it as far as he did, but also with a warning that “you're never sure what's around the corner”. A month later, having opted not to play at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, Federer has confirmed that he is set to have further knee surgery after two operations on his right knee in 2020.
"I'll be on crutches for many weeks, and also out of the game for many months,” he said on Instagram.
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“It's going to be difficult in some ways but, at the same time, I know it's the right thing to do because I want to be healthy, I want to be running around later as well again. I also want to give myself a glimmer of hope to return to the tour in some shape or form.
“I am realistic, don’t get me wrong. I know how difficult it is at this age right now to do another surgery and try it, but look, I want to be healthy. I will go through the rehab process with a goal, while I’m still active, which I think is going to help me during this long period of time.”
It’s not just the message that speak volumes about Federer’s future; it’s his delivery too. Look back through Federer’s previous Instagram posts and there are smiles aplenty. During his previous spell out last year there was optimism and a bounce in his voice as he updated fans on his health. On this occasion he sounds more despondent, more aware perhaps that his chances of ever reaching the very top again are almost over.
Federer has always appeared positive, even when the circumstances and results have gone against him, as they have over the last 18 months. He has also had a relatively injury-free career until now. His first major operation was on his left knee in 2016, and in the two years after that he won three Grand Slam titles. But the way back looks much harder now. There was also a hint in his message that he had been told by doctors that this operation is not just for the benefit of his tennis career, but life beyond that.
“Unfortunately, they told me for the medium to long term to feel better I will need surgery, so I decided to do it,” he said.
Whether Federer ever plays another Grand Slam is now uncertain. He may well miss the Australian Open, particularly with strict Covid-19 restrictions potentially still set to be in place, and will be nearly 41 by the time Wimbledon comes around next summer. If he does play at the All England Club again it will surely be to say goodbye rather than to challenge for a 21st Grand Slam title. Even without this latest surgery, his results over the last couple of months – the third-round loss to Felix Auger Aliassime in Halle and 6-3 7-6 (4) 6-0 quarter-final defeat to Hubert Hurkacz at Wimbledon – left little doubt that he needed to improve significantly to challenge again for titles.
“I definitely need to be a better player if I want to be more competitive at the highest of levels,” he admitted after Wimbledon.
Federer also called Wimbledon the “initial first super step” after a year of rehab. “It was a long, hard road. I said it many times before, I actually kind of enjoyed it. It was always uphill. As slow as it was, it was always moving forward. I haven't done that kind of - how do you say - like a rehab in the past. I enjoy new things, even though it's maybe more of a negative thing to go through.”
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Will Federer feel the same way and get the same enjoyment from another four, five or six months of rehab work? Retirement may not have crossed his mind yet, but another surgery clearly brings that decision even closer. Very few of the game’s greatest players have gone on beyond the age of 40, and few have been able to hit the heights they once did after surgery. If Federer needs any further indication of what lies ahead then he only needs to look to Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka. It wasn’t that long ago that the three-time Grand Slam champions both rivalled Federer at the top of the game, but both have found it difficult, and frustrating, to rediscover their best form after surgery and further injury issues.
"It's a different landscape,” said Murray ahead of competing at the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati this week. “For almost all of my career those guys have been there but things are changing. Bodies are breaking down instead of [the top] players being overtaken by tennis.”
Former world No 7 Mardy Fish, who saw his career ended early as he battled an anxiety disorder, wrote on Twitter: “Going out on your terms is something every athlete wants. Happens less than you’d think. Speedy recovery my friend.”
The question now is what ‘terms’ does Federer want to go out on? Does he want a ‘farewell tour’ where he plays a handful of his favourite tournaments in 2022 and then retires at the end of the year? Or is there a desire to carry on playing for a few more years? With four children and a career that has already spanned 23 years the latter option appears unlikely, even though it may be appealing for many Federer fans.
Predicting what will happen next is impossible, especially with another surgery coming up and uncertainty over the exact timescale of Federer’s absence from the tour. However, this latest news does seem to confirm that the end is getting closer for one of the game’s greats.
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