Federer’s Waning Powers A Sign Of Things To Come

November 19, 2018

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Seeing Roger Federer hit himself in the face was a shock. Of course, it was a shock to him too – a look of surprise crossed with the acknowledgement of stinging pain flickered across his features – but for those in the O2 Arena at the ATP World Tour Finals, it was a moment of deeper realisation.

It was early on in his opening round-robin match against Kei Nishikori, which descended into a chaotic straight-sets defeat, and the murmur that rolled like a wave around the arena was almost an audible realisation that this great Swiss would not be on court forever.

The unedifying scenes of scattered booing that greeted his 7-5, 7-6(5) semi-final defeat at the hands of Alexander Zverev were similar. There was an expectation that Federer, after yet another year at the top of the men’s game and another Grand Slam title in Australia, would end it in the final of the showcase event. Instead, he toppled out of the tournament after a confusing incident in which a point was replayed in the tie-break following an errant ball bouncing in to Zverev’s eyeline. The German proceeded to fire down an ace to level the breaker, and Federer faded away.

The fans were disgruntled, but the Swiss was sanguine. Sometimes he can be a little easy to mock for taking himself so seriously; having been one of the greatest players in the history of tennis for two decades, he is well aware of his greatness. There is no point in false modesty or humility.

This loss, however, demonstrated his composure and sportsmanship as he congratulated his young rival – and interestingly also showed that he is also very well aware that his powers are beginning to wane, and he is adjusting his expectations accordingly. Although his fitness has been remarkably consistent and he has been fortunate to avoid serious injury or any joint conditions caused by relentless repetitive movements (compared to, say, Andy Murray’s hip problems or Rafael Nadal’s knee issues), simply being in the best possible physical shape now may not be enough. Federer’s armoury has never relied on power, but it draws upon swift reflexes and fine footwork; those attributes are bound to slow a little with the advance of age.

At the moment, he is content that he is still good enough to play at the top level – but that indicates conversely that when he is not content, the time will have arrived for him to hang up his racket.
“I must tell you I’m very proud that at 37 I’m still so competitive, and so happy playing tennis,” he told reporters after his defeat to Zverev. “From that standpoint, as disappointed as I might be about this match, if I take a step back, I’m actually very happy about the season.”

It would be difficult to disagree with his assessment that any year in which he wins a slam has to be a good one – but similarly difficult to disagree that the second half of his season could have been better by his standards, with his Wimbledon quarter-final fifth-set loss to Kevin Anderson a notable glitch as well as a round-of-16 elimination at the US Open to the unseeded Australian John Millman.

He added: “Overall I’m happy how the season went. There’s many positives, to be quite honest. So I’m excited for next season.”

Yes, he’s planning to play in 2019 – but will that be a full season, or a goodbye tour?

Murray has always said that if he can’t play at the highest level, he will play wherever he can – he simply loves the game that much. Federer seems to be suggesting that he will be happy to step away when the time comes – when he can no longer be as competitive as he has been at his peak. Though many players from Martina Hingis to Lleyton Hewitt have enjoyed marvellous careers, announced their retirement, and then missed the game so much they have returned, that does not sound like something that would appeal to Federer.

A clean break might be the best thing all round – nothing would be able to damage his remarkable legacy, of course, but a pleasant, happy, dignified retirement tour throughout 2019, as he bids farewell to his fans around the globe as well as the tournaments he has graced for over 20 years, would be a fitting end to his remarkable career.

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Author: Carrie Dunn

Carrie writes for leading newspapers and media outlets including the Times, the Guardian, the New Statesman and Eurosport. She has covered events from the Ashes to the Olympics, and her most recent book The Roar of the Lionesses chronicles women's football in England following the national team's bronze medal at the 2015 Women's World Cup.

Twitter @carriesparkle

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