Longing for Roger Federer at Wimbledon

WIMBLEDON, England — There he was, a surprise, perhaps the biggest of this Wimbledon fortnight: Roger Federer in the flesh Sunday on Centre Court.

As always, he looked handsome and freshly pressed. But instead of his tennis whites, Federer wore a trim, dark suit to to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Centre Court.

Flanked by a slew of past Wimbledon champions, Federer was on hand only briefly, but no player received a louder greeting. Not Bjorn Borg. Not Venus Williams. Not Rod Laver or Billie Jean King, not Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic.

For the first time since 1998, when he announced himself to the tennis world by winning the junior event, Federer is not playing Wimbledon. At age 40, he’s still rehabbing after 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, speaking into a microphone, his voice ringing across the court. He added, “It feels awkward to be here today in a different type of role.”

He continued for a short while, bathing in the warm adoration, taking in the old stadium and its memories. “This court has given me my biggest wins, my biggest losses,” he said.

“I hope I can come back one more time.”

The fans sitting around me at Centre Court went nuts.

And then Federer was gone.

Wimbledon 2022 has been a strange journey. Instead of the usual electric energy coursing through each day, signaling the peak of the tennis season and the start of the English summer, the feel has been slightly off — like a master violinist struggling for just the right note.

During the opening four days, attendance dropped to levels not seen in over a decade. The barring of Russians and Belarusians robbed the tournament of several marquee names, including the world’s top-ranked male, Daniil Medvedev. Their exclusion caused protests by the men’s and women’s tours, which decided not to officially recognize the results with ranking points, essentially turning the entire affair into the most lavish tennis exhibition ever held.

Those are some mighty blows.

But there’s something else that feels off about this Wimbledon.

Instead of charging into the tournament’s second week as the men’s favorite and the fans’ hoped-for winner at a tournament where he is worshiped like a god, Federer floatedin for the centennial celebration and then was scheduled to jet back home to Switzerland.

The tournament goes on. But a Wimbledon without Federer is like a Wimbledon where there are strawberries but no cream.

How do you explain the power of absence? Maybe through the shock of looking at the men’s draw and not seeing the most familiar name. Or through a fan’s shout, such as the one that came out loud and true, expressing palpable longing during a prime-time match last week.

“Is that Roger Federer?” someone yelled, the voice ringing across Court No. 1 during a tense late-night match between two guys, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Nick Kyrgios, who could offer only a glimpse of the grace Federer brought to every match at Wimbledon.

The yell was aimed at Tsitsipas, of Greece, whose one-handed backhand and flowing strokes call to mind the eight-time champion.

Close is not the real thing. Tsitsipas is no Federer.

There are no guarantees that Federer will ever play here again, though we now know that he hopes to. “I think maybe there’s a little magic left,” said Tony Godsick, Federer’s longtime agent, as we walked the grounds last week.

“I’m not sure that magic means having to hold up a trophy,” Godsick added. “Magic means going out on your own terms, being healthy, and enjoying it.” He looked out at one of the grass courts. “There will be places where he’ll be able to do better just because of the nature of the surface,” he said. “But if it doesn’t happen, he gave everything.”

The deep, even ethereal connection Federer has with this vine-covered Taj Mahal of tennis is about more than longevity.

Part of it is style. Wimbledon is white linen, polished gold, light cotton fineries, ascots and the Duke and Duchess of Kent in the royal box. Everything about the refined Federer fits this palace, from his old-school game to the gliding way he walks.

Part of it is substance: the fine art of victory. Federer was the champion in 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012 and 2017.

Part of it is losing, but weathering the storm in the right way.

For a while, the Swiss player seemed like he might never be conquered on the low-cut grass. Then came Nadal. When Nadal finally beat Federer in the final in 2008, their match was regarded as one of the greatest ever played. Who can forget Federer’s comeback, his saved match points and Nadal’s unquenchable desire? The match ended in the dwindling sunlight, 9-7 in the fifth set, with Federer shedding tears of agony.

Federer’s Wimbledon final against Novak Djokovic in 2019 was perhaps the last great match of Federer’s career.Credit…Nic Bothma/EPA, via Shutterstock

He suddenly seemed vulnerable, human, within reach. Showing weakness at a tournament he had owned for five straight summers, and handling it with grace, made Federer more popular than ever.

To the fervently loyal fans of Nadal and Djokovic, he was the perfect foil, the one to root most lustily against, the one player they most wanted to defeat and send off with head bowed.

In the last great match we saw him play at Wimbledon, possibly the last great match of his career, the marathon championship final of 2019, Federer held two match points while serving against Djokovic. The Serb won both, tracking down the last of them by skimming across the baseline and, as he so often does, producing a winning passing shot. About an hour later, he won the match, 13-12, in a fifth-set tiebreaker.

Watching Djokovic play on Centre Court last week, it was impossible not to think of that classic. There he was again, the defending champion, dashing across the same baseline with the same staunch resolve as when he snatched victory from his longtime rival. Djokovic may well win this year’s tournament, which would give him seven Wimbledon titles overall. But other than among his loyal fans — and yes, there are many — watching him plow through opponents with metronomic efficiency and tight-lipped swagger does not quite stir the soul.

He is a marvel, all right. So is a microwave oven.

Then I watched Jannik Sinner of Italy, 20, who is little known outside tennis but regarded as a potential future force within it. Sinner may not win Wimbledon this year, but there’s a good chance he will one day.

On Sunday, against another precocious talent, 19-year-old Carlos Alcaraz, Sinner hit his forehands with a consistent mix of heavy speed and daring curve. He added aces, drop shots and deep returns. The crowd on Centre Court swayed and swooned with his every move.

It felt reminiscent of the energy surrounding a certain Swiss player at the start of his great Wimbledon career. It was a reminder of the way greatness gives way to greatness, one generation to the next — and a reminder that Federer was not on hand to help keep youth at bay. Not this year, at least. Maybe next.

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