Wednesday, Roger Federer made an unexpected exit from the tournament that he has promised to participate in for the remainder of his career. Of course, when he signed on, it was known as the Gerry Weber Open – now, things have changed and it is the Noventi Open, but literally, same time, same place in Halle, Westphalia, Germany. He was defeated by Felix Auger-Aliassime, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2.
Serendipitously, Auger-Aliassime shares Federer’s August 8th birthday, but the young Canadian is 19 years his junior. Federer will be 40 years old when that day rolls around this year. Aliassime will be celebrating his entry into what most believe is adulthood at twenty-one. Before making assumptions that Federer has lost his sparkle, maybe a closer look is called for.
In 2002, at Roland Garros, I was roaming the venue, searching for a match to feature in my daily coverage. Hidden behind Court Suzanne Lenglen are several courts that usually feature lesser known players or big name pros practicing for an upcoming match. I spotted a young pro that I had never heard of striking balls in a smooth and determined sort of workout. I was immediately mesmerized by the concentrated effort of the fellow whose name was – Roger Federer.
When I tore myself away from the captivating drill, I immediately went to my station in the pressroom. I was so excited about this virtual unknown that I announced to anyone who was present that I had spotted a phenomenal player who had been practicing in the “outback” of the grounds. “It’s a young man named Federer and he’s from Switzerland.”
Blank stares greeted my pronouncement and a chorus of “No one good ever comes from Switzerland.” Umm – Nearly twenty years later, virtually not a person who follows tennis would have said that after not just one, but two long-time elite competitors have graced the courts and always play deep into tournaments. (I’m adding Stan Wawrinka here, because, indeed he is the real deal, but this piece isn’t about the 36 year old Swiss player who showed up a few years after Federer.)
Wednesday was likely a sad day for all concerned in Halle. Not just Federer who lost, but anyone lucky enough to have been on hand for the ten victories that were orchestrated by the man from Basel, Switzerland. I can look back at all of his triumphs because I was there. Even before the fancy freight elevators were added, I climbed the four flights of stairs that led to the press seats. It never mattered that my knees screamed in pain – at least it didn’t matter that day. It was always a match that I just couldn’t miss.
In 2003, he hoisted the Halle trophy and went on to Wimbledon with a repeat performance. There were several years where it became a done deal, he would win Halle and then move across the channel and do the same at Wimbledon. His last win in Halle was in 2019, but alas, there wasn’t a follow-up win in London. The last time that happened was in 2017. It seems right now that it’s unlikely for it happen again.
Last year, the Noventi Open wasn’t contested. The pandemic took care of that cancellation. This year, a condensed version was held. There was a full slate of contestants, but no press to speak of and it has been catch as catch-can to pick up coverage of the play on television here in the US. The usually filled stands in the huge stadium were sparsely occupied, since only 500 were allowed to be there in person. In a way, I am glad that I missed the match. Will this be the swan song for Federer? Only he knows the answer, but I doubt it’s worked its way to the forefront.
A lot has changed for the young man I saw in Paris when he was twenty and full of hope that has materialized in ways that could never have been dreamed of. It seems as if Federer will have an answer to that question sooner than he would like. His fans may rue the answer, too. Wednesday’s match in Halle may reveal more than a loss to an up-and-coming Canadian, Felix Auger-Aliassime. It might be the beginning of an end that is the opposite of the light at the end of a tunnel no one expected to conjure up from the little village deep in the forests of Germany.
Title photo of Roger Federer playing the 2021 Noventi Open by Mathias Schulz