Is Roger Federer pushing himself too hard?

Roger Federer Wimbledon

For the first time in 19 years, an unrecognizable Roger Federer didn’t seem to believe enough in his own match-winning abilities on grass. A visage of despondency engulfed him as he stood on the brink of being ejected from Centre Court–a place he called home for almost two decades. Hubert Hurkacz upset Roger Federer in straight sets in the Wimbledon quarterfinals. Such was the magnitude of the upset that it took a standing ovation to try and inspire the 2019 finalist and eight-time champion to one last hold of serve. And he failed to hold serve, quite unlike himself, for a third consecutive time in the third set.

The most ardent of fans at Centre Court rose to their feet in the hope that their champion–the man who entertained them all these years–could salvage himself from a massive embarrassment, as if losing in straight sets was not embarrassing enough. And the unthinkable became the inevitable as the Swiss veteran went crashing out on a Wednesday that saw his most miserable performance at Wimbledon in eight years. He failed in every department of the game. A frail first serve, a wobbly forehand, and backhand strokes that flew so wide and high they could have graced the streets of London. Ball retrieval fell to unprecedented lows as he was unable to chase the ball at times. Often considered a decent returner of serve, Federer could not return when it mattered most.

Coming off a 13-month hiatus, the eight-time champion may not have been 100% fit through the season–certainly not nearly as fit as he was in his heyday. That said, one cannot overlook the fact that he had managed, if only barely, to steer clear of his opponents over the fortnight, enduring long matches without overstraining or injuring himself. Aside from the possibility that some fatigue may have developed, the Swiss had everything working in his favor. Most notably, he was placed on his own playground–Centre court–throughout the fortnight, not to mention the overwhelming crowd support and a 21-season experience.

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Pursuit of Wimbledon glory or obsession for Centre Court?

Was this just a bad day? Or was the monstrous taming of the Swiss a testament to a rapidly waning game as time catches on? By all standards, Federer’s atrocious showing was unbecoming of the legend he is. What fans witnessed in the third set was in complete contrast with the fight he put up in the second–the fight itself was missing. It was not like Hurkacz’s game leaped by orders of magnitude from the second set to the third. It didn’t. And yet, Federer surrendered to the Pole’s nearly flawless game, as though in worship of the next generation’s upsurge. His movement was evidently impaired. On very few occasions over a long career did Federer not bother to put up a fight in the face of adversity. This was one.

The transition of the other two Slams from grass to hard courts decades ago left grass aficionados with very little grass court action at the Slam level. For someone as passionate and as successful as Federer, this only had one consequence–that of trying to play competitive tennis at the highest level for as long as possible. And it was not long before this turned into an obsession.

Everyone knows that the Swiss maestro;s quick playing style has helped him stay away from injuries for years. But that doesn’t put him markedly apart from some other serve-and-volleyers of the game. For perspective, PeteSampras, the second-most successful player at Wimbledon, bid adieu at 31 years of age. And Federer’s playing style has famously been very similar to Sampras’. Jimmy Connors, an exception, was active until the age of 43.

A largely injury free career perhaps does not help at almost 40 years of age, given the grueling physical demands of modern tennis–and given he was out of action with a knee injury. There was no way Federer could have mounted a comeback from two sets to love down after playing four hard-fought matches.

One would think the eight-time champion has been pushing himself a bit too hard of late. Furthermore, the need to close points sooner, combined with the on-the-rise playing style, has allowed more and more unforced errors into his game, especially off the backhand. With the American hard court season impending, I reckon he will find himself at a juncture where he must choose between wearing out his knees on the hostile hard courts and risking injury, or go on another long hiatus until the next grass season with time running out on him. There is a third alternative too–perhaps one that is the most anticipated yet the most “un-Federer-like”: retirement, a prospect Roger Federer has always dreaded.

This is an Opinion piece. As such, it does not necessarily reflect the views of anyone at LWOT other than the author.

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