In the days leading up to his return to competition at the Qatar Open this week after two knee surgeries and a 13-month layoff, the longest of his life, Roger Federer made his first public appearance at the tournament in the humble environment of an Instagram. Live question and answer session with a group of local children. He spoke as he often does, pleasant and expansive, but there was a curiosity. Despite the fact that he is the most popular tennis player in the world, who can organize an army of supporters with the click of his fingers, only 150 people were watching.
It is the type of audience you will have to get used to. The last time Federer was televised on a tennis court, he and his old rival Rafael Nadal embraced as they broke the record for highest attendance at the sport when 51,954 spectators crowded to watch their Match in Africa tennis exhibition in Cape Town in February last year. Return to a completely different world.
All the adjustments Federer will have to make as he gets used to the reality of competing during a pandemic – the bubbles, the quarantines, the limited team members who can accompany players, and the anxiety of contracting the virus – have been of interest to many. However, as he prepared to face Britain’s Dan Evans or France’s Jérémy Chardy in their first official match since January 2020, it became clear at Sunday’s pre-tournament press conference that the only thing that matters is his knee.
It has taken Federer considerable effort simply to get back on the court. He has undergone two arthroscopic surgeries on his right knee, first in February and then in June after his recovery had not progressed enough. When he decided that he finally had to address his eroded knee, he never imagined it would take him so long to compete again. After the complications that followed, he had to “start from scratch, from the bottom up” and the steep decline in his knee after the first surgery took its toll.
“I was not doing well,” he said. “I was going for a walk with the kids, or I was going to ride my bike and I came back, I had a swollen knee and I didn’t understand what was going on because the training was going very well for the first four or five weeks and the progress was fast. I was depressed. He couldn’t believe he had to do a second one. This is a time where you question everything a little more. “
While Federer is now “injury free, pain free”, everything else is surrounded by questions that he cannot answer until he gets back on the court. Every flight, practice, and long game will tell you what your knee can handle and how long your run can last. “That’s the only real concern I have: ‘Is the knee going to hold?’ For now I’m not sure. I did everything I could, otherwise I wouldn’t put myself in this position here in Doha, but there are a lot of things to look forward to and some uncertainties, which is normal when you’ve been away for so long. “
And so Federer returns to the competition playing the long game. He intends to compete during the clay court season, but only hopes to be 100% at Wimbledon by the end of June. If his knee allows it, Federer will continue to hope that more success is possible, especially on grass. His intentions were embedded in the congratulatory note to Rafael Nadal he posted after the Spaniard equaled Federer’s record of 20 grand slams by winning Roland Garros last October: “I hope 20 is just one more step on the continuing path to both, “he wrote.
The world of tennis has also changed since Federer’s last match. His first steps back into competition coincide with the loss of another of his treasured records. Following Nadal’s victory in Paris, Novak Djokovic marks week 311 as ATP No. 1 on Monday, placing him ahead of Federer as the male player with the most weeks at the top.
If Djokovic wins his 19th major at Roland Garros, he will be breathing down Federer’s neck. If Nadal wins there again, his tie will be broken. When asked how he feels about seeing his record usurpation, Federer shrugged off any suggestion of bitterness. He reasoned that he was chasing records to usurp Pete Sampras, which he accomplished. He has advanced and is focused on himself: “You want to leave without regrets and from that point of view we all sleep very well at night.”
Regardless of whether or not you have any disappointments left, you are certainly right to let it slide and worry about the magic that you are still capable of producing in your career. The same could be said for those who love to look at it.
Sports have become so consumed by the “greatest of all time” debates that the wonder of the abilities of the best athletes sometimes seems to be of secondary importance to some. These arguments will endure for decades after all the players finally leave, but the moments that Federer and his rivals offer on the court will soon be gone. The battles. The fights. Both the sight of Federer’s game in full and fluid flow and when his shots are a mess and his courage alone is enough to pull it off. The past 13 months have underscored the limited time left. It would be smart to enjoy it while it lasts.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism