Image: Wikimedia Commons / slgckgc
Image: Wikimedia Commons / slgckgc

Injury setback to sideline Roger Federer until 2021

Roger Federer has announced that he will miss the rest of the 2020 tennis season after undergoing further surgery on his right knee. As tennis starts to make a comeback, it seems we won’t be seeing the 20-time Grand Slam champion any time soon, if at all. What does this news mean for the Swiss player, and what is Federer’s likely future in tennis?

Federer had arthroscopic surgery on his right knee in February and intended to miss at least four months of elite tennis. In many ways, the timing was fortuitous for Federer’s recovery, as the tour was suspended shortly after due to Covid-19. With the possibility that the US and French Opens will still be played, however, Federer didn’t want to push it – he simply isn’t recovered enough.

In a statement on Twitter, he said: “Dear Fans. A few weeks ago, having experienced a setback during my initial rehabilitation, I had to have an additional quick arthroscopic procedure on my right knee. Now, much like I did leading up to the 2017 season, I plan to take the necessary time to be 100% ready to play at my highest level. I will look forward to seeing everyone back on tour at the start of the 2021 season.”

Novak Djokovic is the favourite to win his 18th major at the US Open

For Federer, the forced break could have represented a bit of breathing room for his space at the top of the record books. But if we do see the French and US Opens go ahead, Federer’s records will be in jeopardy. His rival Rafael Nadal needs only one major title to equal Federer’s all-time record of 20 – as the Spaniard already holds 12 French Open titles, he is the favourite to claim another if the tournament takes place. Meanwhile, Novak Djokovic is the favourite to win his 18th major at the US Open. Nadal and Djokovic are 34 and 33 respectively, comparatively young men who have the time to rack up more wins.

Federer has famously done better at Wimbledon and the Australian Open (winning eight and six titles). He’d have been an outsider even at peak fitness at the French Open, and he has struggled in recent years in the humidity of New York, meaning the US Open would be a long shot. This year, he misses his two preferred tournaments as the two other champions seek to usurp his record, and his dream of overtaking Jimmy Connors’ record 109 title looks increasingly far away (he currently has 103).

Federer is two months shy of turning 39 and could be 40 before he is back on the court. Ken Rosewall currently holds the record for the oldest Grand Slam champion, 37 as he won the 1972 Australian Open, and there’s the real question of how much longer Federer’s body can cope with the pressures of elite sport. It would be an incredible comeback for the Swiss, but there’s a feeling that his fortune may have already passed after his first bout with knee surgery.

The joint pressures of age and injury make another Slam victory feel unlikely

In 2017, he surprised everybody by returning, five months after surgery, and beating Nadal in the Australian Open final. He managed the same feat a year layer against Marin Cilic, but it was clear that it was becoming more of a struggle. In last year’s Wimbledon final, he missed two match points against Djokovic and was open about how the defeat had drained him. If it was an uphill struggle in 2017, it will be an almost impossible comeback now.

It would be a fool’s move to rule Federer out completely, but the joint pressures of age and injury make another Grand Slam victory feel very unlikely. Both Nadal and Djokovic are eager to surpass his records and, with time on their side, they likely will. But this will not impact Federer’s status as one of the greatest ever to grace a court, both as a talented sportsman and a true ambassador for tennis.

It would be a shame if Covid-19 puts the stoppers on one last hurrah for Federer, and I know many fans will be hoping for that most miraculous of stories. If Federer can recover and win again, it will be the sporting story of the generation.

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