Roger Federer suffered the worst injury of his career while running a bath. The 38-year-old’s longevity is usually put down to a winning blend of natural fitness, lean body composition, a fluid style and a positive mental attitude, and while Federer acknowledges all those things, he also admits he has enjoyed a little luck. Filling the bathtub for his twin daughters one January afternoon in 2016, he got unlucky. “It was a very simple movement, probably a movement I’ve done a million times in my life,” he said at the time, after feeling a twinge in his left knee. “I didn’t think much of it when it happened.”
A few weeks later Federer underwent arthroscopic surgery on a torn meniscus. He rushed back, and so did the pain in his knee. It all culimated in the deciding set of a Wimbledon semi-final against Milos Raonic, when Federer collapsed in a heap in a rare public display of vulnerability. He pulled out of the Rio Olympics and US Open on doctor’s orders, falling out of the world’s top 10 in the process for the first time in nearly 15 years. “The doctors advised that if I want to play on the ATP World Tour injury free for another few years, as I intend to do, I must give both my knee and body the proper time to fully recover.”
The operation Federer underwent this week in Switzerland carried strikingly similar circumstances to those four years ago: arthroscopic surgery of the knee (the right knee this time) in February of an Olympic year. Just as commentators wrongly declared the end of Federer as a Grand Slam contender then, so there will be speculation that this new injury could bring an end to his trophy count. Federer will be 39 in the summer, and even a man as gloriously evergreen as the Swiss must eventually fade.
In recent times the elite end of men’s tennis has started to resemble a survival of the fittest. Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal have each won 35% of the Grand Slams they’ve played since their first major title, while Federer’s hit rate is 31%. Put simply, the big three have each have about a third share of Grand Slam titles since their era of dominance began; little separates them for talent, so which player ends their career with the most majors will come down in no small part to whose body best holds up.
Federer insists it is his love of tennis that motivates him to keep playing and adding to his 20-Slam haul but the chase of his rivals surely plays on his mind. Djokovic is 32 and has 17 Slams; Nadal is 33 and has 19. So perhaps after revealing the injury it was no surprise to see Federer immediately rule out a return at the French Open, where he has won only one title on the clay of Roland Garros and has not reached the final for almost a decade. Federer’s body may only have a handful more Grand Slam challenges in it, and he is not willing to waste one in Paris where long rallies in hot conditions take a considerable toll.
Federer is aware, too, that lessons from 2016 must be learned. To rush back now would be to put another full season in jeopardy. His statement on Thursday suggested a more patient approach, with Wimbledon as his target – his favourite tournament on his favourite surface which still offers the best shot at another major title. ”I can’t wait to be back playing again soon,” he said. ”See you on the grass!”
The next generation is slowly beginning to establish some semblance of a new order. The world No 4, Dominic Thiem, has reached three Slam finals in three years and his maiden title is only a matter of time. The 21-year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas and 24-year-old Daniil Medvedev are not far behind. Federer remains above them all in the world rankings, yet more than ever he will be aware that rivals are closing in on all sides. Time is running out to add to his tally. Gearing his entire season towards a ninth Wimbledon title might be his best shot at holding on to his Grand Slam crown, for a little longer at lest.