Article translated by Tommaso Villa
The Swedes followed Borg with his “grandchildren” Wilander & Co. Same with Germany, inspired by the Wunderkind, Boris Becker, and by Fraulein Forehand, Steffi Graf. The importance of leading by example.
Tennis is obviously an individual sport. Every player runs and strikes for himself or herself. However, it cannot be a coincidence that, in certain eras, players from the same countries have done well at the same time – a concept that applies the other way around as well. As to why this happens, here’s a few theories:
- It could be the leading example of a fellow countryman or countrywoman, someone who perhaps didn’t stand out as a junior player, allowing to understand that a champion is great, of course, but not superhuman – “if he or she did it, why can’t I?”
- Maybe it’s the fact that tennis players are not as alone as they used to be. They have coaches, physios, psychologists, tactical analysts, physicians, whole teams. And what do teams do? If they are friendly with members of other collectives, they collaborate, exchange information, foster the growth of each member. If they are not, they study each other, learn, and grow. What happens when a player’s team has success? Other teams emulate and study their methods. Very often, one’s achievement becomes everybody’s achievement. Within the tennis circles, it is then much likelier that people from the same country will enable each other – why would you antagonise people with which you can naturally cooperate, since they were shaped from the same mould?
- The media play an important role, perhaps, voicing and spreading the popularity of the game, positively influencing the entire movement, and encouraging the players to greater feats.
- Said national enthusiasm might prompt more kids to pick up a racquet and further stimulate the growth of the game in a given country, creating a positive cycle.
Tennis history validates all the above statements. I’m not referring to the epochs when the game was limited to a few select nations: before WWII, it was the Brits and Wimbledon, the French with the Musketeers, the Americans with Bill Tilden, Ellsworth Vines and Don Budge. Afterwards, and all the way to the end of the Sixties, tennis was dominated by the Aussies, followed (though not closely) by the United States. Between 1950 and 1967, Australia won the Davis Cup 15 times out of 18 (the competition was as important as a Major back then), dominating thanks to the presence of champions like Sedgman, McGregor, Rose, Rosewall, Hoad, Laver, Newcombe, Roche, and Emerson – the USA won thrice out of 11 finals.
Of course, both countries had a much bigger reservoir of young players due to a greater following, a following that was alimented by a winning cycle, so much that five consecutive American Davis Cup wins (between 1968 and 1972) took place in the same years when Agassi, Courier, Sampras, and Chang were born, three of them the children of immigrant parents who had discovered the game because of the national wins that made headlines and filled sports shows – this was also the time when the Slams were becoming more and more popular, especially the US Open and Wimbledon.
In the early Sixties, Italy reached two Davis Cup finals, in 1960-61, and, perhaps by chance, perhaps not (I believe not), four kids (they were born in 1949, 1950, 1951, and 1953) learned about the game after hearing about what Pietrangeli, Sirola, Merlo, and Gardini had done – they would later become Italy’s version of the Musketeers (Panatta, Barazzutti, Bertolucci, and Zugarelli), one of them the son of a tennis club’s custodian, another one the offspring of a Tuscan tennis instructor, two more the progeny of struggling families.
THE POST-BORG SWEDISH CASE
What happened in the early 1970’s? Borg Mania, the arrival of a racquet-swinging Beatle, that’s what happened. His popularity was immense – a bona fide superstar. He won a Davis Cup almost by himself, along with 11 Majors that included a triple Roland Garros-Wimbledon brace, back when grass was actually grass and players did not even have the time to assimilate the switch between the dirt and the lawns. The outcome of his domination? The media frenzy in Sweden spurred a bonanza of young children who elected to start playing, flooding tennis clubs in a small country that didn’t even have outdoor courts except in Bastad – all those kids braving the cold before dawn, they dreamt of becoming the new Bjorn Borg.
Coincidentally (but it’s not a coincidence) those years saw the emergence of Wilander, Nystrom, Sundstrom, Jarryd, and Edberg. A grassroots dynasty with seven consecutive Davis Cup Finals between 1983 and 1989 – and three titles. The glory days lasted until Edberg’s retirement in 1996, when his team lost the final in Malmoe against the French led by Arnaud Boetsch (now a Rolex man), who saved three match points against Niklas Kulti in the decisive tie. Unfortunately, Larsson, Kulti, Gunnarson, and Gustafson didn’t have the talent or the charisma of their predecessors. Therefore, the sacred fire of tennis in Sweden was extinguished, and it hasn’t come back to this day – at the moment, the best Scandinavian player is a Norwegian, Casper Ruud.
Midway through the 1980’s, a new champion emerged in Europe – Boris Becker, born in 1967. Actually, the young Teutonic studs were two, because a few years later Steffi Graf (born in 1969) broke onto the scene as well, and in a far more emphatically dominating way. At the beginning of the ensuing decade, when Boris had already become the most popular German along with his peer, nicknamed Fraulein Forehand, the German Chancellor Kohl said: “If Becker decided to run, he’d easily win the elections” – that was around the time when, in 1991, he lost the Wimbledon final against a fellow countryman, Michael Stich.
Coincidentally (but it’s not a coincidence) Germany notched its first two Davis Cup titles in those years (out of three finals played between 1985 and 1989), and the wins snowballed into a generation of very good players, such as former world N.2 Tommy Haas, N.4 Nicolas Kiefer, and N.6 Rainer Schuettler. However, a guy like Haas, who didn’t reach the top spot and wasn’t reared in Germany but rather in Florida by Nick Bollettieri, wasn’t enough, and the flame was extinguished in Germany as well, with the galore of tournaments (Munich, Stuttgart, Frankfurt, Essen, Hannover) trickling down to almost nothing, the population losing interest due to the lack of new great champions.
NADAL, SPAIN, AND THE FRENCH TENNIS MOVEMENT
As soon as the German fandom started dwindling, Ion Tiriac moved his Masters 1000 event from Hamburg to Madrid, where the Caja Magica was built and Rafa Nadal dominated, spearheading a national movement that was already great – the years of Santana, Orantes, and Gimeno were the same when Bruguera, Albert and Carlos Costa, Moya, and Ferrero were born or grew up in, another coincidence/not coincidence – the latter even became the first man to lead Spain to a Davis Cup triumph.
I don’t want to become repetitive, even though there are dozens of examples, such as in France, where the generation of Noah, Forget and Leconte was succeeded by Grosjean and Clement, who were in turn up-staged by the contemporary, ageing quartet of Tsonga, Monfils, Gasquet, and Simon, or in Argentina, where the duel between Vilas and Clerc caused the emergence of Jaite, Coria, Gaudio, Del Potro, or in Croatia, where Ivanisevic spawned Cilic and Coric, and so on.
THE ITALIAN CASE, FROM SCHIAVONE TO CECCHINATO
The history of Italian tennis is further confirmation of the generational theory: after years of drought, Francesca Schiavone won the French Open at 30 years old, reaching the final again the next year, perhaps an even greater achievement. Before her, Silvia Farina had reached the 11th spot in the rankings, but she had never broken through at a Slam, thus not spurring a winning wave. Coincidentally (but it’s not a coincidence!) Schiavone was immediately succeeded by another Italian in the Parisian final, Sara Errani, a player very few believed in – certainly not the national federation, judging by the press releases of the time and by the fact that she had opted to move to Spain to train with Pablo Lozano, but still, right on her heels, Flavia Pennetta won at Indian Wells and then at the 2015 US Open, defeating Roberta Vinci, another Italian who hadn’t done much early on in her career.
How can this multiplicity of great players be explained if not by acknowledging the veracity of the theories I laid down at the beginning of this op-ed? Why the Italian women managed to ratch up these wins while their male counterpart couldn’t? The answer is simple: because no man was able to convey a positive message to the younger generation for over 40 years, no Italian male player was able to go deep into a Major nor to win some big event.
In 2018, Marco Cecchinato reached the semi-finals at the French Open, 40 years after Barazzutti. Suddenly, every Italian player who had played and perhaps even beaten Cecchinato (sometimes just in training sessions) realised that his achievement could be emulated. Moreover, the national tennis federation (the FIT) also came to a sudden realisation, finally understanding that financing private teams is a good thing, because it creates financial benefits for the entire movement.
What happened next? Fognini won in Monte-Carlo in 2019, after years of high-level play but with no satisfaction, finally breaking into the Top 10, while Matteo Berrettini reached the fourth round at Wimbledon and then the semi-finals at the US Open, qualifying for the season-ending ATP Finals. The pandemic slowed down the growth of the movement, but at the moment both the two highest-ranked players born after 2001 are Italians, Jannik Sinner and Lorenzo Musetti.
This doesn’t mean that Italian tennis will dominate the next decade. Spain had as many players in the third round of the men’s French Open as Italy, five apiece, their N.1 player is also the favourite to win the men’s tournament, and they are already assured of a spot in the fourth round thanks to the Carreno-Bautista derby. Moreover, the Italian women’s movement seems to have meanwhile withered (hopefully not for 40 years). But negative and positive cycles are not a coincidence. So, tennis is an individual sport, but maybe not that much. Don’t you agree?
EXCLUSIVE: How The ATP Plans To Make The Tour More Welcoming For LGBT Players
The governing body of men’s tennis has received praise for taking a proactive approach to the topic with the help of a leading LGBTQ+ organisation and a top research university.
During the first week of the US Open, there was an abundance of rainbow-theme flags and wristbands worn by both players and fans to mark the tournament’s first-ever Open Pride Day.
The event was part of the USTA’s Diversity and Inclusion strategic platform which aims to make tennis more inclusive. Unlike the women’s game, there are no openly LGBTQ+ players on the men’s Tour and there have been few historically, even though various players have spoken of their support for anybody on the Tour who decides to come out. Including Stefanos Tsitsipas and newly crowned US Open champion Daniil Medvedev, who were questioned about the topic following their second round matches. Meanwhile, Canada’s Felix Auger-Aliassime revealed that there is an ongoing survey related to LGBTQ+ issues being conducted by the ATP.
“Recently I’ve started doing a survey inside the ATP about the LGBTQ+ community,” he said. “It’s important these days to be aware of that and to be open-minded and the ATP needs to do that, in today’s time it’s needed.
“The reason we don’t have openly gay players on the ATP Tour, I’m not sure of the reason, but I feel me, as a player, it would be very open, very welcome. Statistically, there should be some, but for now there’s not.”
In response to Auger-Aliassime’s comment, UbiTennis looked into the work currently being done by the ATP alongside two other parties. Their decision to venture into LGBTQ+ representation on the Tour is part of their recent commitment to support the mental health and wellbeing of their players and staff. Last year, in May, they formed partnerships with Headspace and Sporting Chance.
The survey currently being conducted by the ATP started after the governing body of men’s tennis reached out to Lou Englefield, the director of Pride Sports, a UK organisation that focuses on LGBTQ+phobia in sport and aims to improve access to sport for all LGBTQ+ people. Through their connection, they contacted Eric Denison, a behavioural science researcher at Monash University’s School of Social Sciences. Denison was the lead author of the Out on the Fields study, the first international study on homophobia in sport and the largest conducted to date.
“I have been personally impressed with the initiative of the ATP and their desire to find ways to mitigate the broad impact of homophobic behaviour (in particular), not only on gay people, but on all players.” He told UbiTennis during an email exchange.
“We know of no other sporting governing body in the world that has been proactive on LGBTQ+ issues, and has taken a strong focus on engaging with both the LGBTQ+ community and scientists to find solutions.”
Denison says the norm has been for sports bodies to address this issue after they have been either pressured to do so or if the LGBTQ+ community got the ball rolling themselves. Incredibly, research conducted as part of the Out On The Fields initiative documented 30 separate studies which found sports organisations ignored discrimination experienced by LGBTQ+ people in sport.
Monash University has supplied the ATP with a series of scientifically validated questions, which they are using to ‘look under the hood’ at the factors which supports a culture where gay or bisexual players feel they are not welcome. The methodology is similar to a study Denison conducted in 2020 that focused specifically on the team sports rugby union and ice hockey.
“We suspect that tennis isn’t inherently more homophobic than other sports, or traditionally male settings. Instead, there is a disconnect between people’s attitudes towards gay people (e.g. the recent pro-gay comments by top players) and their behaviour, specifically their use of homophobic banter and jokes,” said Denison.
“This behaviour, which is largely habitual, creates a hostile climate for young gay/bi people who drop out or hide their sexuality. This means gay/bi players are invisible in youth tennis and leads to the downstream problem of no professionals. The banter/jokes continue because people think it is harmless.”
The hope is that players will also agree to be interviewed by the researchers for them to get a better understanding. All of the results will then be used by Pride Sports and Monash University to recommend evidence-based solutions. It is unclear as to how long the study will take or when the findings will be ready.
Former top 100 player Brian Vahaly is one of the few players to have been both openly gay and played at the highest level of the men’s game. However, he didn’t fully come to terms with his sexuality until after retiring from the sport at age 27. Speaking to UbiTennis earlier this year, Vahaly shed light on the potential barriers for gay players.
“There were a lot of homophobic jokes made on Tour. It’s a very masculine and competitive environment,” he said. “You don’t see a lot of gay representation, except for the women’s Tour. With me not having the personality of an outspoken advocate (for LGBTQ+ issues), certainly not in my twenties, I needed some time to understand myself. To me, in tennis I didn’t feel like there was anybody to talk to or anybody that was going through anything similar.”
The ATP has spoken with Vahaly about their initiative and he has become ‘quite involved.’ Through their discussions, he got acquainted with Denison for the first time. As a professional, Vahaly peaked at a ranking high of 64th in the world and won five Challenger titles. After retiring from the Tour, he has served on the USTA’s board of directors since 2013.
“I am happy to hear that the ATP is finally taking action to address this issue. I’m impressed they are taking a thoughtful, data-driven approach to make a meaningful difference here,” he told UbiTennis.
The ATP aims to make the men’s Tour more welcoming to potential LGTBQ+ athletes playing either now or in the future. For those who question if such an initiative is important in 2021, you only have to look at the younger demographic.
Sportsnet quoted CDC data from 2019 which showed that 26% of American LGBTQ+ teenagers aged 16 or 17 has contemplated suicide, five times more than those who identify as straight (5%). Among those teenagers who heard homophobic terms, 33% self-harmed and an additional 40% considered doing so.
More than 2000 players around the world currently have an ATP ranking.
Statistical Profiles: Alexander Zverev
What is keeping the Tokyo 2020 gold medalist from winning a Grand Slam title?
At twenty-four, Alexander “Sascha” Zverev is clearly among the best five players in the world, having achieved in 2017 his best ranking of world N.3 and having recently won the gold medal at the Olympics in Tokyo. This would be enough, perhaps, to highlight the talent of the young German of Russian origins, but there is much more to it: he can attack from the baseline with great ease both from the forehand and the backhand sides, and combines these skills with one of the most powerful serves on tour. After his first appearance in an ATP tournament (he won his first match in Hamburg in 2014 as a wild card), many foresaw a bright future for him.
Instead, in spite of 17 career titles, Zverev has not yet been able to win a Major, the Litmus test for every great champion. Even in the last edition of Wimbledon, Zverev succumbed to underdog Félix Auger-Aliassime in a five-setter.
Let’s look for an explanation within the data, particularly those that refer to the 79 singles matches he has played so far in Melbourne, Paris, London and New York, in order to try to better understand the causes of this discordant note in what is already a great career nonetheless.
Before focusing on Grand Slam matches, it is worth mentioning that the German number one has already won five Masters 1000 titles: the first on clay in Rome in 2017, defeating Djokovic in the final in straight sets; the same year, he won the tournament in Montrèal (on hardcourts), this time beating Federer. Then he won in Madrid twice, in 2018 and 2021 on clay, beating Thiem in 2018 and Berrettini in 2021, before recently winning in Cincinnati against Rublev. Not to be forgotten are the most precious jewels of Zverev’s collection, namely the triumph of the ATP Finals 2018 – once again defeating Djokovic after having eliminated Federer in the semis – plus the aforementioned Olympic gold medal, beating Djokovic once more before dispatching Khachanov in the final.
It was precisely the win at the O2 Arena three years ago that seemed to have definitively propelled Sascha to the pinnacle of world tennis, not only because of the wins per se, but also for the extraordinary quality of play he expressed in all areas of the court. Instead, something seemed to stop working.
In 2019, Zverev reached “only” three finals: in Geneva, in Acapulco, and at the Masters 1000 tournament in Shanghai. However, only in Switzerland he could get to the title (in a third-set tiebreaker against Nicolás Jarry), while he was soundly defeated by Kyrgios in Acapulco and by Medvedev – in steamroller mode – in Shanghai.
In 2020, a season marked by the pandemic, Zverev seemed close to a big break. He first reached the semifinals at the Australian Open (his first at a Major) and then reached the final of a Grand Slam tournament for the first (and currently, only) time at the US Open. In both circumstances, he faced his good friend (and rival) Dominic Thiem. The fast surface should have, on paper, given an edge to Zverev, who in fact won the opening two sets in Flushing Meadows with a score of 6-2 6-4. At that point, once again, the tune changed: Thiem found new energies, while Zverev struggled. After tying the score, it was the Austrian who won the decisive tiebreaker, denying Zverev the trophy.
The 2021 season seems to fit into the same pattern: Zverev has already won four finals including two at Masters 1000 events, he is fourth in the Race and won gold in Tokyo, and yet he couldn’t go past the quarter finals in Australia, the semifinals in Paris (defeated by Tsitsipas in five sets), and the aforementioned 4th round at Wimbledon. So, a great regularity at high levels but with no real peak (compared to the level of play that he is able to express). Let’s now take a closer look at the data to try to better understand this dynamic.
Before delving into the analysis in search of winning and losing patterns, an overview will be presented, framing Zverev’s style of play with a series of statistics, the average values of which are shown in Figure 1, separately by surface.
It can be observed how both the average number of aces (in particular on fast courts) and that of double faults is quite high, proving that the serve is, in a way, both a blessing and a curse for the German player. He gets many points from it but, at the same time, it is that very stroke which sometimes puts him in danger, especially in clutch moments.
Comparing different surfaces, a good balance can be observed: of course the number of winners is bigger on hard and grass, due to the specificities of these surfaces, and the difference in the number of net points is also easy to understand (albeit quite marked): almost absent on clay, definitely more frequent on hard, and even more on grass. A second set of statistics, shown in Figure 2, can help us get an even more precise idea:
We note, in particular, a significant decrease in the percentage of points won with the second serve, compared to the percentage of points won with the first serve. On all surfaces, Zverev wins more than 70% of points with the first serve, while only on grass he exceeds 60% with the second, falling under 50% on clay.
It is only natural to attribute this difference to psychological factors too, given that in his first 1000 final, on the Rome clay in 2017, in a best-of-three tournament against the best returner on tour (and probably the greatest returner of all-time, Novak Djokovic), Zverev managed to win 69.2% of points on his second serve. The underdog role he played that day perhaps allowed him to play with less pressure and to showcase his qualities.
To be noted is a good effectiveness for Zverev at the net, particularly on hardcourts, where he wins over 70% of such points. Let’s now try to deepen the analysis, looking for patterns related to a Zverev win or defeat in a best-of-five match.
MOST SIGNIFICANT PATTERNS, THE KEY ELEMENTS OF ZVEREV’S GAME
So far, we have focused on Zverev’s game one aspect at a time. In this section, with the help of technology, we will consider more aspects simultaneously in order to develop a multivariate analysis. In particular, we will try to find out which of the various match statistics (which represent our input variables) are decisive, and how so, with respect to victory or defeat (which represent our output variables).
For greater clarity, we will ensure that the classification algorithm used will automatically return – based on the available variables – a model consisting of a set of rules which represent the statistically most significant patterns that lead the German to winning or to losing. Below, we illustrate the three most significant rules calculated as follows:
1 – “If Zverev wins at least 4.7% more points than his opponent with his first serve and hits fewer than 15 double faults, then he wins the match.” This pattern is quite general but extremely precise: it occurs in more than half of the matches won by Zverev in Grand Slam tournaments (to be precise, in 56%, corresponding to 38 matches) and in none of his 22 losses.
2 – “If Zverev hits at least 3.2 more winners than his opponent per set, then he wins the match.” This pattern is extremely precise: it occurred in 18 cases and Zverev won every time.
3 – “If Zverev does not win at least 2.1% more points than his opponent with his first serve, if he hits fewer than 43 winners, and if he amasses more than 27 unforced errors, then he loses the match.” This pattern is even more specific but, once more, there are no exceptions: it occurred six times and Zverev lost in all circumstances.
The more a stat appears as a relevant condition within these patterns, the more we can define it as a key element of Zverev’s game. We will therefore be able, on the basis of the data, to draw up a feature ranking of the various aspects of his game, distinguishing those that, to a greater extent, alone or in combination with others, prove to be decisive.
As can be seen in Figure 3, the most important element for Zverev turns out to be the difference in performance compared to the opponent in terms of the points won with his first serve. Of course, as this difference increases, the probability of victory also increases, and that is why the corresponding bar of the graph (the top one) points to the right, indicating a direct correlation. On the contrary, the second bar indicates an inverse correlation with respect to the average number of shots per rally: in other words, the shorter the rallies, the likelier Zverev is to win the match. Examining the other three bars which constitute the feature ranking, we can identify, as other items of interest, the difference with the opponent in terms of the number of winners (direct correlation) and unforced errors (inverse correlation) and, albeit more weakly, in terms of the number of net points played by the opponent (inverse correlation).
Trying to interpret these results, we are led to deduce that, from a more general perspective, the key element for Zverev may be his level of initiative. In other words, if the German looks to win many quick points, shortening the rally and not offering to his opponent the opportunity to get to the net too often, as the data also tells us, he has a very good chance of winning the match. Of course, unforced errors also have a weight: this attitude must not become too wasteful in terms of points gifted to the opponent.
Trying to summarize further and to move from data analysis to tactical choices, one could perhaps venture a piece of advice to Zverev, actually often reiterated by many experts: he should try to play as close as possible to the baseline. In fact, it is from that position that he manages to be aggressive without forcing too much and without letting himself be trapped in a thick web of long rallies. Who knows whether Sascha, mindful of his loss against Auger-Aliassime at Wimbledon, will decide to give this tactic a try, perhaps as early as the upcoming US Open.
Article by Damiano Verda; translated by Alessandro Valentini; edited by Tommaso Villa
It’s Possible That Roger Federer May Never Again Be The Player He Once Was
Further surgery is set to sideline the Swiss Maestro from the Tour for ‘many months’ as he faces a very uncertain future.
As the weeks passed since Wimbledon, the news about Roger Federer became increasingly worrisome to his wide legion of admirers all over the globe. He had reached the quarterfinals at the All England’s Club, and that was no mean feat. About one month shy of his 40th birthday, Federer established himself as the oldest man to reach the last eight at Wimbledon in the Open Era, and the oldest at any major since 43-year-old Ken Rosewall at the Australian Open in December of 1977.
But I digress. Despite his remarkable showing at Wimbledon, the fact remained that the Swiss Maestro performed abysmally toward the end of his straight set skirmish against Hubert Hurkacz, dropping the third and last set 6-0. Federer would say not long after that disconcerting day that he had aggravated his knee during the grass court season, but some insiders are suggesting that the injury occurred during his defeat against Hurkacz.
Whether that was the case or not, Federer’s comeback after enduring two knee surgeries across 2020 had been halted. Soon he would pull out of Toronto and Cincinnati on the ATP Tour, and it was apparent that he would either come to the U.S. Open badly prepared, or not go to New York at all.
Now we know that Federer will not be among the 128 players in the men’s draw at the Open because he will be soon undergoing yet another knee surgery in the hopes that he might improbably return to the ATP Tour next year. As he addressed his multitude of followers on social media a few days ago, Federer sounded realistic about his aspirations. He simply wanted to let his fans know what was going on in Federer World and give them the benefit of seeing him on camera and hearing how he felt about his current predicament.
Federer did not let his admirers down. He spoke to the public graciously on social media without looking through rose-tinted lenses. He said, “I’ve been doing a lot of checks with the doctors, as well, on my knee, getting all the information as I hurt myself during the grass court season and Wimbledon. Unfortunately, they told me for the medium to long term, to feel better I will need surgery, so I decided to do it. I will be on crutches for many weeks and then also out of the game for many months.”
He spoke about his desire to be physically healthy, and then added, “I want to give myself a glimmer of hope, also, 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 [making a comeback].”
Those were poignant words from a champion who knows what he is confronting, realizes that returning to big time tennis and living up to his lofty standards will be arduous, and understands the immense size of the challenge ahead. Listening to the Swiss conveying his thoughts, I had the distinct feeling that Federer is bracing himself for the likelihood that he will never again be even remotely what he once was.
Beyond that, Federer was simply dealing with a harsh reality he could not have imagined when he left Wimbledon after a reasonably good run. To be sure, he knew that he was ailing, but he hoped having another surgery would not be part of the equation. And yet, here he is now, facing the future with cautious optimism, trying to figure out a path to lead him back toward where he wants to be, hoping he can reinvent himself convincingly, and determined to recover from another surgery and perform at least selectively on his own majestic terms.
Keep in mind that Federer has been through this routine too many times over the years. In 2016, he was playing with his children a day after losing in the semifinals of the Australian Open to Novak Djokovic, and he felt something strange in his knee. That led to a February 3 surgery for a torn meniscus. He returned in the spring but had to close that season down after a semifinal defeat at the hands of Milos Raonic at Wimbledon.
Federer took an awkward fall during that loss to the Canadian and had to do rehabilitation on the knee. He did not play again in 2016 but remarkably returned in Melbourne for the 2017 Australian Open and improbably pulled off no fewer than three five set victories in his spectacularly triumphant run, toppling Kei Nishikori, Stan Wawrinka and Rafael Nadal in those memorable contests. His rescue mission from 1-3 down in the fifth against Nadal when he captured five games in a row for his fifth Australian Open crown was a career defining moment.
The resurgent Federer secured an eighth Wimbledon title later that year and then defended his Australian Open title with a five set triumph over Marin Cilic at the start of 2018. He very nearly achieved a career groundbreaking honor at Wimbledon in 2019 when he reached his twelfth final on the Centre Court by ousting Nadal in a sterling semifinal performance. In the final, he served for the match at 8-7 in the fifth set, reaching 40-15 and double match point on his serve against Novak Djokovic in the sixteenth game, only to lose that stirring encounter with the Serbian. Federer had never stopped Nadal and Djokovic in the same Grand Slam tournament, and so his historic bid fell narrowly and agonizingly short.
Be that as it may, his body was holding up surprisingly well in that stretch from 2017-2019. But then he suffered a setback at the start of 2020 after losing to Djokovic in the semifinals of the Australian Open, and was out for the remainder of that season. In that period he had two more knee surgeries. Federer was not ready to play at the Australian Open this year. He made his comeback in Doha this year on the hard courts, losing to Nikoloz Basilashvili in the quarter finals. His knee was still burdensome so Federer waited until Geneva on the clay to appear again, dropping his first match there in the round of 16 to Pablo Andujar.
Then Federer managed to record three match triumphs at Roland Garros on his way to the round of 16, but, concerned that he could hurt himself again, he defaulted against Matteo Berrettini in the round of 16. On to Halle he went, but Federer won only one match there before bowing out against Felix Auger-Aliassime. He did manage to move on to the quarterfinals of Wimbledon which was no mean feat under the circumstances, but his knee was acting up again. And so now he is where he is after all of the stopping and starting. Even for someone of Federer’s stature and stability, these are daunting times. For more than a year-and-a-half, he has been thrown into a world of uncertainty.
And so he will take it step by step in the months ahead, recognizing that things might not turn out quite the way he wants. But Federer surely knows that, even if he had stayed healthy, collecting more major titles was going to be awfully tough at his age. If he has the good fortune to emerge from his upcoming knee surgery with a clean bill of health for most of 2022, Federer may need to accept a standard that he would have scoffed at in days gone by. After every match victory at Wimbledon this year, Federer seemed to savor the moment more thoroughly than ever before, perhaps feeling internally that this was as much as he could ask of himself.
The feeling grows that Federer will not play on much longer. It is entirely possible that one way or another he won’t play much in 2022. Even in a best case scenario, it is hard to imagine him playing beyond next year. If that is the case, he should have few regrets.
He might be somewhat dismayed that Djokovic and probably Nadal will surpass him at the majors in the next year and beyond. All three superstars have secured 20 career majors, but this three-way tie could well be broken by Djokovic at the U.S. Open. Yet there are so many achievements Federer can celebrate— and console himself with— if his career is indeed almost over now.
He has won 103 tournaments across the years, and that is second only to Jimmy Connors (109) in the Open Era among the men. He holds the record for most Wimbledon singles titles taken by a man with eight. He has had winning streaks of five titles in a row at both Wimbledon (2003- 2007) and the U.S. Open (2004-2008), a feat unmatched by anyone in the history of the game.
There is more. Federer’s consistency across his prime at the majors was unparalleled. He set an astonishing record by reaching 23 consecutive semifinals at the Grand Slam events (2004-2010) and he also advanced to at least the quarterfinals of 36 straight majors (2004-2013). His consistency from his early twenties through his thirties was astounding. His longevity is beyond reproach; Federer established himself as the oldest man ever to reside at No. 1 in the ATP Rankings at the age of 36 in 2018.
On the flip side of the coin, Federer will almost certainly finish behind both Nadal and Djokovic in his career head to head meetings against his two foremost rivals. Nadal currently leads Federer 24-16 in their rivalry, including triumphs in six of their nine finals at the Grand Slam tournaments. Federer also trails Djokovic in their career series—the Serbian is ahead 27-23. Moreover, Djokovic has the edge over Federer 4-1 in final round duels at the majors.
Be that as it may, Federer should feel awfully proud of what he has done, and not the least bit regretful if he is unable to ever compete again on the premier stages—or anywhere else for that matter. Roger Federer has been a singularly popular player for the bulk of his career, cheered on vociferously by audiences everywhere he goes, buoyed by his vast appeal as the sport’s most elegant stylist, inspired above all else by knowing that his artistry has never been taken for granted by learned tennis observers.
If Federer is able to play on for another year, he should consider himself one fortunate fellow. If not, he must meet that moment of departure with equanimity, and remind himself that playing such a transcendent role in the game’s evolution as the most revered tennis figure of modern times is perhaps Federer’s largest contribution to a game that he loves unabashedly.
Steve Flink has been reporting full time on tennis since 1974, when he went to work for World Tennis Magazine. He stayed at that publication until 1991. He wrote for Tennis Week Magazine from 1992-2007, and has been a columnist for tennis.com and tennischannel.com for the past 14 years. Flink has written four books on tennis including “Dennis Ralston’s Tennis Workbook” in 1987; “The Greatest Tennis Matches of the Twentieth Century” in 1999; “The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time” in 2012; and “Pete Sampras: Greatness Revisited”. The Sampras book was released in September of 2020 and can be purchased on Amazon.com. Flink was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2017.
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