So, Wimbledon 2021 bids farewell to Roger Federer. It was a sad spectacle, really: spraying ground shots, missing easy volleys, being constantly passed and completely outclassed by the Polish player, Hubert Hurkacz, a 6’5” powerhouse whose game belies his gentle and shy nature.
Back in 2001, the 19-year-old Federer beat the seven-time Wimbledon Champion, Pete Sampras, on this same Centre Court. It was viewed as a passing of the torch. Federer made the American’s game look dated. More extreme grips and the onset of the drive volley were just a couple of exciting innovations.
Against the Pole, it was Federer’s turn to look old-fashioned. Most of the upcoming players tower over the Swiss and wallop the ball twice as hard. Double-handed backhands are now the norm. They may not be as pretty as Roger’s swashbuckling single-hander, but they are definitely in the majority.
Federer was dispatched in three straight sets, the third being a somewhat humiliating 6-0 which ended in yet another framed groundstroke. The eight-time Champion had never before lost a “bagel” set at Wimbledon. And now, at 39, he was thrashed by a young man of 24. To put it into perspective, Hurkacz was two years old when Federer made his debut at this Championship.
Federer’s longevity at the top of tennis has had much to do with his fluid style and lightness of foot. As age catches up with him, his body is beginning to feel the strain of the gruelling professional circuit. Not only has he suffered relatively recent back and hand injuries but, more significantly, he has just undergone double-knee surgery. At his age, it’s far harder to come back from that.
Nadal, with his hugely muscular game, has long had knee issues, among many other injuries. Andy Murray, a resolute defender, which puts so much strain on his body, has had, at the age of 34, several operations: one on his back, two on his hip and severe knee and ankle problems. Serena Williams has suffered with shoulder inflammation and knee problems and retired from this year’s Wimbledon with a leg injury. But Federer? Injured? It once seemed unthinkable.
No doubt to his irritation, Federer has been asked for years now about when he is going to retire. His defeat at the hands of Hurkacz must surely raise question marks. As he left Centre Court, wearing a somewhat shamefaced expression, the crowd gave Roger a thunderous standing ovation, no doubt partly due to the collective thought that this might well have been his last appearance at the Championships. It was a huge gesture of appreciation and perhaps of sorrow at the departure of one of the most beautiful, balletic and popular players in the sport.
After his loss, Federer offered up a somewhat guarded: “We’ll see,” in response to the question of his future. How hard it must be to think of losing the mass adoration, the roars of appreciation from the crowd at one of those sublime backhands, the exhilaration of Grand Slam success, not to mention the millions in prize money. He may be old in tennis terms but retirement at what is, for most people, a young age at 39 must be a daunting prospect.
Maybe he should make the Tokyo Olympics his swansong. Then we can look back on his glory days, rather than at the sad sight of him slipping inexorably down the rankings. However, with the latest announcement that no fans will be allowed at the event, that seems unlikely.
So perhaps he will have one of those farewell tours in 2022, that vanity project of which retiring top players are often so fond. It gives them the chance to say goodbye to the fans and enjoy all those eulogies. But Roger Federer? Better to bite the bullet now.