If tour-level tennis does return in 2020, as is looking increasingly likely, it will be without its biggest star.
Roger Federer, the world’s highest-paid athlete whose endorsements dwarf Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi’s combined, has undergone a ‘quick arthroscopic procedure’ on his right knee – his second surgery of the year – and won’t play competitive tennis before 2021.
Federer, who turns 39 in August, will be well into his 40th year when he does return – assuming there are no further injury complications – which in itself defies belief. What’s more, he will still be one of the favourites to win Grand Slams.
Indeed, there’s recent precedent that Federer can return from a long injury lay-off and come back to win majors.
Having not won a Slam since 2012, Federer won three in little more than a year from 2017-2018, fresh from a six-month lay-off after having surgery on his other knee.
Then, of course, the tour was functioning as normal. There was no coronavirus crisis, no uncertainty over which events would go ahead, no question over whether fans or entourages would be allowed to attend if they did.
Only a month ago, Federer’s great rival Rafael Nadal predicted there would be no top-tier tennis played in 2020 amid uncertainty over international travel, but the reality is the US Open and the French Open – which has already been postponed – will do everything in their powers to run their events.
Missing the two remaining Grand Slams of the year may be no great loss to Federer from a purely statistical standpoint. He has not won either tournament for a decade.
Playing without fans – as seems likely to be the case in New York, at least – also didn’t really appeal to the Swiss, who said last month: ‘For me completely empty [stadia] when playing big tournaments is very difficult’.
It’s especially true for Federer, universally loved wherever he goes. Would Tennys Sandgren have squandered seven match points against an injured Federer in the quarter-finals of the Australian Open this year if the roaring Melbourne crowd weren’t doing their bit to rally their wounded warrior?
He may not be the only absentee from New York. World No. 1 Novak Djokovic, unhappy with ‘extreme’ restrictions put in place to hold the tournament, is publicly saying his season will ‘most probably continue on the clay at the beginning of September’. An Instagram live on Wednesday morning showed him pratising on clay rather than hard courts.
Most Grand Slam titles (ATP)
20 – Federer
19 – Nadal
17 – Djokovic
14 – Sampras
Missing two of the sport’s biggest stars would be an unmitigated disaster for the United States Tennis Association (USTA), who may have already found it a tough enough gig persuading people that the US Open really counts without the presence of supporters.
Organisers can’t be convinced Nadal will come either. Just last week, the world No. 2 said he wouldn’t travel to New York if the tournament was happening now, how much will the situation have really developed by then?
If he does go, and Djokovic joins Federer in sitting it out, he would have a glorious opportunity to equal Federer’s record 20 men’s singles Grand Slam wins. Should he get enough rest between that and Roland Garros – where he already has 12 titles – he could even surpass Federer this year.
Of course, it could open the door to an active male Grand Slam champion under the age of 31. Currently there are none.
The ‘Big Three’ are somewhat out of step with the rest of the tour on their reluctance to return. Those who have profited less from the fruits of the tennis world will be desperate to play the majors – where, in some cases, first-round prize money alone can account for a significant portion of their yearly earnings.
Others will be able to air their views in a remote ATP player meeting on Wednesday afternoon where they will discuss the practicalities of staging the US Open at the end of August.
Whether Federer can return and add another major to his collection remains an unknown.
His miraculous return in 2017 was somewhat aided by the struggles of Djokovic – an eight-time winner in Melbourne – who was about to suffer the most dormant period of his career since reaching the top of the sport.
That said, Federer was still just a point away from beating the Serb at Wimbledon last year in the longest final in the tournament’s history – perhaps there is still life in the old dog yet.
At this stage in his career, there are no guarantees a return is even possible. While Federer has defied time for so many years, this could prove to be the end. Although, few athletes seem to have Federer’s intuition of when to rest his body.
With Wimbledon already cancelled, Federer may have felt he had little to play for this year. With the uncertainty still surrounding the tour, he may not miss much anyway.
From his perspective, it seems a straightforward decision. Will it prove to give him one last shot at the big time?
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