When Roger Federer frames a forehand, it can feel like tennis’ entire orbit has been knocked off its axis. The ball shanks towards the crowd, like a firework that’s lost its course, and elicits a terrified gasp. For if there has ever been one guarantee, one unbending gospel, it is that Federer and the ball have always shared a faultless rhythm. Over the course of two decades, even in his pomp, he has, at times, been overpowered by brute force or been ground down by ceaseless attrition, but Federer’s timing remained almost sacred; a trinity of grace, force and consistency. If you take away all his trophies and strip back the manicured persona, he still occupies a separate world because, by most accounts, nobody has ever struck a ball quite so sweetly.
They gasped in Doha on Wednesday evening. After 400 days and two arthroscopic surgeries, Federer made his competitive return against Dan Evans. And inevitably, for all his imperishable grace, the speed to his slow dance was ever so slightly out of turn. On set point in the tiebreak, a near-perfect serve set up what would ordinarily be an effortless drive volley. But Federer’s footwork laboured fractionally, he lurched forwards and the ball dribbled almost apologetically off his frame into the base of the net. As a shrill groan radiated around the arena, Federer stopped and laughed with almost bemused disbelief.
“Take a look up at the lights there, Roger,” came the voice over commentary.
The last time Roger Federer cried, he was on the floor of the men’s locker room at Wimbledon. After 297 minutes of majestic, back-breaking tennis, when the ball buffeted from side-to-side with the force of a hurricane, he finally succumbed to Novak Djokovic in the 2019 final. The final shot, an attempted forehand winner, shot off the frame of his racket and soared high into the sky.
The agony was not necessarily in defeat - Federer might have raised Everest by winning a 20th grand slam in Australia the year prior, but he was already far past the peak of his powers - but in coming quite so close, squandering two match points on serve on a court that had so often catered to his will. The match - the longest final in SW19 history - was a testament to his longevity, but also a glimpse into his mortality, the margins that wouldn’t quite be restored, even when he drew on every last measure.
“I hope I gave some people the chance to believe, at 37, it’s not over yet,” Federer said during the trophy presentation, his emotions barely veiled. “It’s going to take some time to recover physically, too. I gave it all I had and I’m still standing.”
But once Federer escaped the public’s loving glare, he “collapsed and a few tears escaped”. As the adrenaline subsided, the weariness of his body and, in particular, the pain in his knee came into focus. It is tempting to say Federer gave everything that day, that he drew on all his reserves and realised they might never again be enough.
In the next tournament he entered, the Cincinnati Masters, Federer lost in the third round in just 62 minutes - his quickest defeat in over 16 years. Then, he exited at the quarter-final stage of both the US Open and the Shanghai Masters. It is hardly to say he wasn’t still capable of competing at the highest level - at the end of the season, at the ATP Finals, he defeated Djokovic for the first time in four years - but in the same way Wimbledon raised Federer to unimaginable heights, it seemed to have finally taken something from him in return.
A few months later, he gave in to the warning signs emanating from his right knee. He expected the length of his recovery to be manageable, but the need for a second operation brought on something of a reckoning. “I would go for a walk with the kids, or go for a bike ride and come back, and I would have a swollen knee and I wouldn’t understand what was happening because training was actually going very well for the first four or five weeks and progress was quick,” he said in Doha this week. “I was down. I couldn’t believe I had to do a second one. This is a moment when you question everything a little bit more.”
If the 14 months of Federer’s absence afforded space for tennis to reinvent itself, to imagine a world not presided over by the Big Three, only slim cracks shone through. There are young pretenders, but ultimately they have still paled in Djokovic’s shadow. For all Rafael Nadal’s own injury toil, Roland Garros remains his kingdom and, in all likelihood, only the plight of his own body will eventually force him to surrender it. Such has been the trio’s dominance, together they can often feel as great as the sport itself.
The question for Federer, though, is how much can he take back?
Throughout Federer’s career, from his combustible emergence as a junior and era-dawning victory over Pete Sampras at Wimbledon to the pristine, fettered icon of today, his highs and lows have always been punctuated by tears. Initially, they were born out of fury, descending into a strop after every defeat as a teenager. But by 2006, to many the greatest season of his career, they represented something more than just joy or despair. Often, they were simply an expression of relief. And even more than that, a release.
To the outside, Federer was not just immaculate in every sense, but essentially invincible. His hypnotic grace and liquid groundstrokes had already set him on a path to becoming the best male player in history. Off the court, he was a gentleman and juggernaut, supremely marketable and marketably supreme. “I’ve never spoken with anybody who was so familiar with the feeling,” he said after meeting Tiger Woods that year.
But while Woods adamantly contained his emotion and relied on a coldness to create distance, Federer’s tears offered a window into his uncompromising standards. After coming from behind to beat a game but inferior Marcos Baghdatis in the Australian Open final, one writer remarked that fans may need an ark to navigate the flood should Federer continue at such an incredible trajectory. During his acceptance speech, Federer could barely speak at all.
If the naked emotions were unfamiliar, or even as some suggested a sign of weakness, they also brought his rarefied air closer to those of us on earth. To see how much it all meant to him broke the spell of being an unstoppable competitor and made him distinctly human - a quality that was exaggerated in defeat, too, most memorably after his epochal loss to Nadal in the 2008 Wimbledon final. Emotion might not be an essential ingredient to success, but it helps to explain why Federer is so universally loved.
The point is that, when Federer looks up at the lights, we might only know the desire has begun to fade when his emotions obey. When he won his 20th grand slam in 2018, neither time nor success had dimmed his desire or stemmed the tears. “This win reminded me more of 2006 when I beat Baghdatis,” he told a press conference afterwards. “I was just relieved when everything was said and done. It was the same tonight. That’s why I couldn’t speak… I was terrible.”
If that Australian Open does ultimately represent Federer’s last grand slam, then perhaps it was also the perfect circle. Or, more optimistically, it might have been the best evidence that even now, at 39, after a catalogue of injuries, after evolving his game - be it the resignation to modifying his consecrated single-handed backhand or the lurching half-volley’s on an opponent’s second serve - that the well is far from dry.
In a clubhouse in Santiago, Chile, professional players competing at an ATP 250 event stopped and gathered to watch Federer’s comeback on Wednesday. Even in the midst of a pandemic, his presence on the court is still a global event.
One of Federer’s favoured partners, he had already spent hours practising with Evans in Doha prior to their match. It could easily have been an extenuation of those humid hours, a glorified sparring match, but it was nothing of the sort. Federer was forced to dig deep, often reverting to pure instinct as the errors that betrayed his absence inevitably emerged. He was broken in the second set but battled back in the third, even if Evans wilted at the pivotal moment, offering up a meek double fault as he served to stay in the match.
And if these were snapshots rich in nostalgia - like the exquisite backhand winner down the line to seal victory - there were also reminders of quite how far there will be to scale. Federer’s serves were often marginally less powerful, affording his right knee a little extra grace. There were unfamiliar glimpses of indecision, even hesitance. And then there was the timing, for like an ageing boxer, while power is the last thing to fade, reflexes always prove the earliest and most damaging loss. “I am somewhat surprised I won,” he admitted afterwards. “But I was even more surprised two weeks ago when I started to play sets with Dan and realised I could hang with him.”
For all his brilliance, even Federer cannot defeat time. He can, at least for a while though, continue to outrun it. And if defeating the world No 28 was merely the first step back, perhaps even he does not yet know his limitations. This may be the beginning of a final chapter, but it has the luxury of being written on Federer’s own terms - a right only bestowed on sport’s deities. There is nothing left to prove, even as his records are equalled and broken, but there is still more to give. And so these are days to be savoured, right down to the last framed forehand. Because once Federer launches that last ball high into the heavens, we might never see someone treat it with such purity again.