Wimbledon, England. Here it is, perhaps the biggest surprise of the two weeks of Wimbledon: Roger Federer in the flesh on Sunday on Center Court.
As always, he looked handsome and freshly squeezed. But instead of his white tennis uniform, Federer donned a neat dark suit to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Center Court.
Surrounded by a host of former Wimbledon champions, Federer was around only briefly, but no player received a louder welcome. Not Bjorn Borg. Not Venus Williams. Not Rod Laver, not Billie Jean King, not Rafael Nadal, not Novak Djokovic.
For the first time since 1998, when he announced himself to the tennis world by winning the junior tournament, Federer is not playing at Wimbledon. At 40, he is still recovering from surgery on his right knee and is unsure of his playing future.
“I’ve been lucky enough to play a lot of matches on this court,” Federer said into the microphone, his voice echoing across the court. He added: “It’s embarrassing to be here today in a different role.”
He continued for a while, bathed in warm adoration, soaking up the old stadium and its memories. “This trial brought me the biggest wins and the biggest losses,” he said.
“I hope I can come back again.”
The fans sitting around me on Center Court went crazy.
And then Federer left.
Wimbledon 2022 has been a strange journey. Instead of the usual electrical energy rushing through each day, signaling the peak of the tennis season and the start of the English summer, the feeling was a bit off, like a master violinist vying for the right note.
Within the first four days, attendance dropped to levels not seen in over a decade. The non-participation of Russians and Belarusians deprived the tournament of several important names, including the best man in the world, Daniil Medvedev. Their exclusion sparked protests from the men’s and women’s tours, who decided not to officially recognize the results with ranking points, essentially turning the whole affair into the most luxurious tennis show ever held.
Those are some hard hits.
But there is something else that does not suit this Wimbledon.
Instead of bursting into the second week of the tournament as the men’s favorite and long-awaited winner of a tournament where he is worshiped like a god, Federer went with the flow. for the centennial celebration, and then had to return home to Switzerland.
The tournament continues. But Wimbledon without Federer is like Wimbledon with strawberries but no cream.
How do you explain the power of absence? Maybe because of the shock of watching the men’s draw and not seeing the most familiar name. Or through a fan’s cry, such as the one that came out loud and sincere, expressing palpable longing during a prime-time game last week.
Is that Roger Federer? someone shouted, and the voice resounded throughout Court No. 1. 1 during a tense match-night match between two guys, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Nick Kyrgios, who could only catch a glimpse of the grace Federer brought to every match at Wimbledon.
The shout-out was directed at Tsitsipas of Greece, whose one-handed backhand and smooth strokes are reminiscent of an eight-time champion.
Closeness is not real. Tsitsipas is now Federer.
There is no guarantee that Federer will ever play here again, although we now know he hopes so. “I think there may be a bit of magic left,” said Tony Godsick, a longtime agent for Federer, as we walked around the grounds last week.
“I’m not sure magic means having to hold a trophy,” added Godsick. “Magic means going on your own terms, being healthy, and having fun doing it.” He looked at one of the grass courts. “There will be places where it can work better just because of the nature of the surface,” he said. “But if that doesn’t happen, he gave everything.”
Federer’s deep, even ethereal connection to tennis’s vine-covered Taj Mahal is more than just longevity.
Style is part of that. Wimbledon is white linen, polished gold, light cotton outfits, ascots and the Duke and Duchess of Kent in the royal box. Everything about the sophisticated Federer fits this palace, from his old-school game to his smooth stride.
Part of that is the content: the fine art of winning. Federer was champion in 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012 and 2017.
Some of it loses but weathers the storm the right way.
For a while it seemed to the Swiss that he would never be beaten on low cut grass. Then came Nadal. When Nadal finally defeated Federer in the 2008 final, their match was considered one of the greatest ever played. Who can forget Federer’s comeback, his saved match points and Nadal’s insatiable desire? The match ended at sundown, 9-7 in the fifth set, and Federer shed tears of agony.
He suddenly seemed vulnerable, a man within reach. The display of weakness in the tournament, which he owned for five consecutive years, and his graceful handling made Federer more popular than ever.
To the ardently dedicated fans of Nadal and Djokovic, he was the perfect opponent they rooted for the most, the one player they most wanted to beat and send head down.
In the last great match we saw him play at Wimbledon, perhaps the last great match of his career. 2019 marathon championship final, Federer scored two match points, serving against Djokovic. The Serbian won both by stalking the last of them, sliding down the backline and, as he often does, hitting the winning passing shot. About an hour later, he won the match 13–12 on a fifth-set tiebreaker.
Watching Djokovic play on Center Court last week, it was impossible not to remember this classic. And here he is again, the defending champion, racing across the same baseline with the same unwavering determination as when he snatched victory from his longtime rival. Djokovic could well win the tournament this year, earning him seven Wimbledon titles overall. But other than among his devoted fans – and there are many – watching him fight opponents with metronomic efficiency and silent swagger isn’t exactly soul-stirring.
He’s a miracle, all right. So is the microwave.
I then watched 20 year old Yannick Sinner from Italy who is little known outside of tennis but is seen as a potential future force within it. The sinner may not win Wimbledon this year, but it is likely that one day he will.
On Sunday, against another precocious talent, 19-year-old Carlos Alcaraz, Sinner hit for the right, consistently combining high speed and a cheeky turn. He added aces, drop shots and deep returns. The crowd on Center Court swayed and fainted at his every move.
It was reminiscent of the energy that surrounded one Swiss player at the start of his great Wimbledon career. It was a reminder of how greatness turns into greatness, one generation after another, and a reminder that Federer wasn’t around to keep the youth at bay. At least not this year. Maybe next.