Legends don't die, but they do fade away. Is 2019 the year in which the greatest tennis player of all time, Roger Federer, will walk away into the twilight and never be seen on a (competitive) tennis court again?
When Federer strolled off court, defeated by a 14th seeded 20-year-old Greek, in the fourth round of the Australian Open at the Rod Laver Courts of Melbourne Park a few days ago, he looked forlorn and weary. He seemed to have aged considerably in that four-hour long battle and the expression on his face was that of a shell-shocked war veteran.
The legend had slid through three rounds of the Australian Open with fluent, straight set wins over Denis Istomin, Daniel Evans and Taylor Fritz. His fourth-round match was against the handsome, long-haired Stefanos Tsitsipas; it was the exuberance of youth pitted against the dexterity of a master craftsman " a man who had won an unprecedented 20 Grand Slam men's singles titles.
In a thrilling four-setter, in ideal weather conditions, the youngster got the better of the "GOAT", beating him 6-7, 7-6, 7-5 and 7-6. Federer's 55 unforced errors as against his younger opponent's 36 were what mattered most in the end. For the record, Tsitsipas was blown off-court by Rafael Nadal 6-2, 6-4 and 6-0 in the semifinals after the former had beaten Roberto Bautista Agut in another four-setter in the quarterfinals.
With not much time left in his celebrated career, the Australian Open defeat wasn't exactly the start Federer would have wanted to the tennis year of 2019. Tennis experts believe that the courts at Melbourne Park, with their high bounce, are ideal for players with knee injuries, while Wimbledon's grass courts aren't. He now has six months to recoup, and perhaps take a call on his future, given his declining fortunes and niggling injuries, before he plays in the Wimbledon Championships in June. Could Wimbledon be his swan song, or will it be the US Open?
The year 2018 too wasn't great for Federer. He started off well, winning the Australian Open title, beating Marin Cilic in the final. He thus added a 20th Grand Slam singles trophy to his mantelpiece. During the rest of the year, he won only the Rotterdam, Stuttgart and Swiss Opens on the European tennis circuit.
As part of his strategy, for longevity, he gave the clay courts of the French Open a miss. He has won at Roland-Garros only once, and that too in 2009. But that did not help him do better at the all important Wimbledon Championships, where he was reigning champ. In the quarterfinals there, he lost to Kevin Anderson in a marathon five-setter. He crashed out in the US Open too, losing in the fourth round to Australian, John Millman.
The legend couldn't perform any better at the Indian Wells Masters, the Miami Open, the Halle Open, the Cincinnati Masters, the Shanghai Masters and the Paris Open. Finally, ending a year of big disappointments, he lost to Germany's Alexander Zverev in the penultimate rounds of the ATP Finals of 2018.
The tennis season is normally a gruelling one, leading to burnout and injury. Playing on a variety of court surfaces does not help. Andy Murray, who has had a bad hip injury, has finally decided to hang up his rackets. Novak Djokovic, Nadal, Stan Wawrinka and quite a few on the women's circuit have had to take breaks from the game to recoup and reboot their tennis careers. Federer, who has been playing on the professional circuit since 1998, was plagued by a knee injury in 2017 and then, in the latter half of 2018, had a painful hand injury. At 37, he isn't getting any younger and these niggles have affected his performances over the last couple of years.
In an earlier era, tennis stars who played on the circuit would retire from the sport when they were around 30 or just past it. Bjorn Borg, for example, turned pro when he was 17 years old and walked off the tennis court 10 years later. Pete Sampras, another legend, retired when he was 31. In that sense, Federer is already past his "best before" date and it is therefore surprising how he still gives the youngsters on the circuit a run for their money.
Tennis' GenNext is getting ready to take over from the likes of Federer, Nadal, Djokovic etc. Besides Tsitsipas, who was impressive Down Under, there are players like Zverev, Dominic Thiem, Karen Khachanov, Kyle Edmund, Daniil Medvedev and quite a few others who are waiting in the wings. Pundits therefore believe that if Federer has to win another Grand Slam singles title, it has to be at the Australian Open of 2020; not Wimbledon or the US Open.
Will the legend last that long? Can he have another shot at the Australian Open title at 38? With Federer, you can never tell. He is unpredictable; he could even pick up another couple of Grand Slam singles crowns and a few other tournaments before calling it a day. It seems unlikely however that he will keep playing beyond the Australian Open of 2020.
Federer fans " the millions who adore him all over the world " should therefore prepare themselves to see the greatest tennis player ever, walking away from a tennis court, probably at Wimbledon or at the USTA Tennis Centre in New York or at Melbourne Park in Australia. Thereon, it will be just memories and nostalgia.
Many seasons ago, Roger Federer told a journalist, "I can't stay Number One for 50 years, you know." Why 50? With what he has achieved in his tennis career, he is sure to remain in people's minds as 'Number One' for another hundred years!
The author is a sportswriter and caricaturist. A former fast bowler and coach, he is now a mental toughness trainer.