This article first appeared on the cover of the May/June 2021 issue of Long Island Tennis Magazine. Click Here to read the full digital edition.
Tennis fans were given a present in the early part of the 2021 season as Roger Federer made his long-awaited comeback to the ATP Tour. For the first time in more than a year, the 39-year-old Swiss returned to the court in Doha, Qatar back in early March.
“I never thought it was going to take this long,” said Federer. “I am very happy to be back playing a tournament again.” Federer would win his opening round match against Great Britain’s Daniel Evans before falling to Nikoloz Basilashvili of Georgia in his ensuing match, with both matches going the full three sets. But Federer’s results were hardly important, to either his loyal fans or the Swiss Maestro himself.
“No, no, no. This one is super easy. I’m already over it,” he said when asked how long it would take him to move past the defeat. “I would have loved to play tomorrow, don’t get me wrong. But at the same time, I’m also happy to get a rest. I’m happy with how I played today. I’m happy how I did yesterday. I’m happy I am back on the Tour. I’m pleased I came here to Doha. So it’s really a positive return for me. I’m really happy.”
While Federer made no hints at retirement or gave any indication his time on the tour could be over during those 13 months off, at 39-years-old and coming off an injury, nothing was guaranteed. He subsequently withdrew from the Dubai event soon after his ouster in Doha, and he announced he would only play one clay event (Geneva) ahead of the 2021 French Open.
The Geneva tournament was his first on clay since he competed at the 2019 French Open. It’s a tough spot in the season for Federer to return in as clay has never been his best surface; only one of his 20 Grand Slams has come on the clay. After two arthroscopic knee surgeries last year, it will be interesting to see how his body holds up. And the question on the minds of most tennis fans is: can Federer win one more title to bolster his count to 21?
Photo Credit: USTA/Darren Carroll
Last year, Federer’s longtime rival Rafael Nadal equaled his mark of 20 Grand Slam singles titles as he won the French Open in the fall. His first attempt at a major title in more than two years will be on the red clay courts of Roland Garros, the place that Nadal has so famously dominated at over the last two decades.
“I want to celebrate great victories again,” Federer said earlier this year. “And for that, I am ready to go the long, hard road.” At 39-years-old, Federer can look across the sports landscape for inspiration, and can find examples of athletes playing late into their careers and being successful.
Earlier this year, 43-year-old Tom Brady led the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a win in Super Bowl LV, his seventh Super Bowl title. Prior to that, 36-year-old Lebron James carried the Los Angeles Lakers to the NBA Championship. There is precedent for older athletes still remaining successful when they are supposed to be “over the hill”.
Tennis presents a different challenge than those sports, however. The obvious one being it is an individual sport as opposed to a team sport; there is no substitutes to check in for Federer when he gets fatigued during a match (like in basketball), and he doesn’t have time to rest on the sideline when his defense is on the field (like in football). Compiling consistent results and remaining physically fit over the course of two weeks is a difficult task for anyone, let alone a player on the verge of turning 40- years-old coming off two knee surgeries.
But the greatest players in their respective sports are built differently than other athletes, and Federer possesses the motivation and desire to continue writing chapters in the book that is his career.
“There are question marks all over. When you come back from an injury, the biggest challenge is to trust yourself 100 percent again in the capabilities of your body,” he said. “I just feel like the story’s not over yet.”
Federer can also look to Nadal as an example of someone up there in age that has fought back from injuries to return to the top of the game. Between the two of them, plus Novak Djokovic, the Big Three have won all but one of the Grand Slam titles since the start of 2017, and Federer is eager to return to competing for majors just like his two peers.
His last Grand Slam came Down Under at the 2018 Australian Open, when he outlasted former U.S. Open champion Marin Cilic in five sets.
“I’m so happy, it’s unbelievable,” said Federer. “I’m happy it’s over, but winning is just an absolute dream come true. The fairytale continues for me. After the great year I had last year, it’s incredible.”
In that quote he was referring to 2017, a year when Federer won both the Australian Open and Wimbledon titles, as he looked to put some significant distance between himself and Nadal and Djokovic on the all-time Grand Slam list.
“I’ve won three Slams in 12 months,” he added at the time. “I can’t believe it myself.”
Since that title, Nadal has added four Grand Slam titles to his collection, and Djokovic has won six, as Federer’s place atop the all-time list is not as secure as it seemed just a couple of years ago.
But it may be unfair to place the expectations of winning a Grand Slam title on a player on the verge of 40-years-old who is still working his way back from injury. No matter what results he compiles in his early matches back on the tour, the tennis world is better for having Federer back competing, and fans hope to see his greatness displayed inside those white lines once again.
“I know that people will think that the measuring stick will only be titles, trophies, finals and semifinals and I am happy that people think of me that way but, honestly, the expectations are in a completely different place for me,” said Federer. “I might surprise myself. I actually already have done in practice the past three weeks. I was surprised with how well it actually did go. But we know matches are a different animal, so right now I just take it day by day. I am happy I am back on the tour again.”
Photo Credit: LI Tennis Magazine/Brian Coleman
Brian Coleman is the Senior Editor for Long Island Tennis Magazine. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.