For a few moments, everything felt right. As Roger Federer strode into Centre Court at SW19 and waved at his sea of admirers on a sunkissed afternoon in London, order was restored once more. Federer was at Wimbledon and the world was content. Unfortunately, the spell was short-lived. For this was 2022 and Federer was dressed in a crisp black suit instead of his seamless all-white armour. The sight of Federer on grass was a result of Wimbledon’s celebration of its greatest champions, and had nothing to do with the maestro’s latest effort to add to his eight championships at tennis’s classiest home. After months of seeing Federer post tributes to Rafael Nadal, gallivant across Europe and hobnob with Anne Hathaway for Swiss tourism, there he was at the right place at the right time, but doing the wrong thing. So much so that the man himself admitted that it’s “embarrassing to be here today in a different role”.
The last time Federer did not compete at Wimbledon, Lionel Messi had never been to Barcelona, Sourav Ganguly was yet to captain India and Tiger Woods had only won a single major. In the 24 years since, not only has Federer become the most decorated men’s player at Wimbledon, he has also converted the tournament into his proverbial backyard, a place where everything, no matter its age or application, oozes elegance, oozes Federer.
The court without a king
Between 2003 and 2007, Federer won five Wimbledon trophies on the trotTT archives
Following his humbling of Pete Sampras in the fourth round at Wimbledon in 2001, Federer reached the next seven of the eight finals in the competition, winning six. The only blot, after five consecutive triumphs, came against his arch-nemesis Nadal in 2008, when Federer was not the only one to tear up after a match for the ages.
Watching Federer tease, torment and thwack his way to titles, all the while making onlookers purr and coo with his balletic movement, was one of the few satisfying constants in a world of flux. Growing up, I would pore into the schedule of the day’s play at Wimbledon with greater diligence than I would into my school syllabus, setting aside work and play to witness Federer skate along the court within his irresistible force-field. The textbook serve and volleys, the inimitable cross-court backhand and the delectable dinks became part of a memorable montage that I would gladly consume every summer, as if replaying the sequences of my favourite film.
Things changed somewhat after 2012, when Federer outgunned Andy Murray to lift the planet’s most elegant pineapple for the seventh time. Ever since, with the notable exception of 2017 (when he last won Wimbledon), Federer has frequently shown his flaws as the rounds and the years have rolled on. Until this year — the year of the court without a king — due largely to a surgery on Federer’s right knee that has kept him in limbo for longer than he or anybody else would have expected.
Nothing has made up for the Federer-sized void yet and nothing will
In all fairness, Wimbledon, in the absence of Federer, has still provided some compelling narratives and plenty of breathtaking action. Be it Novak Djokovic’s surgical precision, Nadal’s sheer relentlessness, the flair and the flare-up of Nick Kyrgios or the gusto and gumption of upstarts like Taylor Fritz and the divinely named Jannik Sinner, the men’s draw has not disappointed. The women’s bracket has been characteristically unpredictable, with the exits of Serena Williams and Cori “Coco” Gauff blurring the lines between the past and the future.
It has largely been business as usual for the likes of Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic at Wimbledon 2022Wimbledon
But nothing has made up for the Federer-sized void yet and nothing will. Even when far from his best, Federer had the ability to make tennis unmissable from an aesthetic perspective, such that his mishits, too, were feats of grace. The simple fact of Federer in action was a temptation in its own right, like a passage by Wilde or Wodehouse, which exists in its own bubble of exquisite form and shape, often for no other sake than as a reminder of how beautiful things require no explanation.
Art for art’s sake, however, has no place at this year’s Wimbledon. From the white linen to the gleaming gold to the royal purple, everything has been released from the Federer filter, making it all seem less magical, less consequential. And it is not just the intangibles that bear this out, with attendance — in spite of no fresh Covid-19 scare in the UK — plunging to its lowest in a decade.
Delaying the inevitable
The thought of Wimbledon without Federer is not a new one. It has hovered in my imagination for years, like the prospect of a parting with a dear friend. No more promises. No more stories. No more hope. Just the next stage in an unstoppable timeline of greats having to give up greatness. This year has made this thought a reality, even if Federer and all his fans, myself included, wish it is a temporary one.
“I hope I can be back one more time,” said Federer earlier this week, with his smile hiding a certain discomfort at the shakiness of that hope. For someone who will be 41 this August, the possibility of returning to action in a year’s time at the quickest Grand Slam on the calendar seems dim. But Federer has defied the odds before, and even if it is for a couple of more rounds of sublime touches on his lawn of choice, he can do so again.
Should Federer somehow manage to win another Wimbledon title, he will become the oldest man to do so, breaking Arthur Gore’s record from 1909TT archives
It is at this point that the question of can versus should becomes relevant. After a fortnight of Federer-less action this year, I have felt hollow, even heartbroken. Not to mention occasionally bored at how mechanical a sport seems when you wrench its chief magician away. But would I feel any better if Federer was to return for a cameo next year? Would the pathos of him huffing and puffing along the baseline against a pretender half his age be worth it? Would delaying the inevitable for one more year make up for the no-show this time around?
The honest answer is that I do not know. A part of me craves to see Federer glide on grass again, even if it is to stumble and slip and fall. But another part of me is afraid that “one more time” is a fairytale waiting to go horribly wrong. Somewhere in between is the part that will sit down this Sunday evening and watch the culmination of the Wimbledon men’s final without any emotions at stake. And once it is over and the latest champion is crowned, it will be time to head over to YouTube and binge on Federer’s victories from the years gone by. Back when everything felt right.