Roger Federer just announced that he will be undergoing yet another knee surgery and will be skipping the US Open. It must have been a difficult decision, because of the implications that are all connected to his aging and the fact that being forty years old is actually a senior citizen in today’s professional tennis game.
It’s not missing the US Open that is the focal point of this issue. The real one is his right knee. The surgery won’t be routine. After all, he is Roger Federer, a man whom over the past twenty years has been the poster “player” for folks around the world who love tennis and all that goes with it – the history, the grandeur, instantaneous media, and the world-wide growth of the game itself.
I’ve written about Federer’s game for many years. His presence was never a burst on the scene kind of guy like Rafael Nadal. There seemed to be a quiet honing of a classic tennis player who used beautiful strokes that didn’t need to project booming ball slaps from six feet behind the baseline. (Those strokes work for some, but I always wondered, “Is that really tennis?)
Innovation is a good thing if one is speaking of a heart surgeon’s skill. But, is innovation simply a honing of strokes that could be slammed against a concrete backboard that receives the ball and shoots it back at breakneck speed? Not in my book. I learned the game by doing that, but oh the joy of returning a serve by utilizing a well placed backhand to surprise that opposing player on the other side of the net. In my well-worn book, that’s tennis.
Federer’s smooth play has retained its impressiveness, even after several knee surgeries. I saw him wince after what seemed to me to be a misstep in London. It was during the match he lost to Hurbert Hurkacz in the Wimbledon quarterfinals. I actually had to watch the moment several times, because the onsite announcers didn’t point it out. (Having had knee issues most of my adult life, it was a painfully familiar halting step and it caught my eye because I have been there, but I am not, nor ever was a professional athlete. But he is.)
My memory of Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi each calling it quits after playing at the US Open keeps fading in and out. It wasn’t the same year and there were different issues involved and they were much younger and of course they were Americans. It seemed fitting to bow out then and spend the rest of their lives resting on their well-deserved laurels. I’m not sure that they have laurels in Switzerland, but Federer could have a whole hedge of them.
It’s apparently not an option yet for the man who speaks and evidently thinks in multiple languages. It may be short sighted to examine what he’s done for tennis in the same vein as other modern day players. However if I were to have a conversation with him as a person who has been around for nearly twice as long as he has, I would suggest he speak to himself realistically about what it is he wants.
He has been very open with his entry into the world of tennis, struggling with frustration as a youngster who could throw a tantrum over a missed ball, a missed call, or even a missed perception of what just happened. He fixed that and the hundreds of matches he has played since his first win on the big stage at Wimbledon in 2003 showcase a control that most players can’t summon up, even if they try.
Probably ten years ago, I saw him grow frustrated over what seemed to me to be a really bad call by an umpire in Halle. He called for the supervisor who did not over-rule what had just happened. Federer’s body language projected that he was bristling, but his reaction showed that he realized where he was and what he couldn’t change. What he did was brilliant. He received his opponent’s serve and hit the offending ball through the open roof of the stadium. It sailed away and his frustration was alleviated even though he lost that point. He found a way to deal with a problem; he dealt with it and went back to the business at hand. And yes, he was victorious.
Something tells me that the time he spends unable to perform the magic that has dominated his life during the past twenty years will lead him to a solution that works for him. It’s in his makeup. Tennis is a huge part of his life and there will be a different way to make it work for him, and the game will set out a welcome mat for him when he does.
Title photo by Dana Anders