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What Next For Federer?

Roger Federer lost 3-6, 6-7(4), 0-6 to 14th seed Hubart Hurkacz in the quarter-finals of Wimbledon 2021. 

Updated
Tennis
4 min read
<div class="paragraphs"><p>London: Switzerland's Roger Federer leaves the court after being defeated by Poland's Hubert Hurkacz during the men's singles quarterfinals match on day nine of the Wimbledon Tennis Championships in London.</p></div>
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Roger Federer swung at a forehand. A packed centre court rose to its feet. They broke into wild applause. Seems like a familiar narrative?

Well, since slicing through Pete Sampras on a balmy summer afternoon in 2001, Federer has always drawn wild responses. You did not even need to be a tennis fan to be familiar with the warm energy from the prayerful chorus.

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On Wednesday though, the celebrated artist stuttered. The lines were hard to remember, let alone deliver. The knees, worn and repaired, buckled under the burden of his gifts. The forehand sailed wide. Federer marched to the net, smiling warmly at his victorious opponent. The smile betrayed the bagel he was chewing, served hot by a Polish upstart.

Hubert Hurkacz is 24, ranked 16th in the world. Federer has reached more Wimbledon semi-finals than his opponent’s thirteen visits to a grand slam tournament. Hurkacz had only once reached the third round of a grand slam, two years ago in London. But he is climbing the ladder, as Federer descends it. The Pole won the Miami Open this year. Federer was happy he won three matches in Paris.

The big stage can make pretenders blink; Hurkacz showed he was the real deal. As Federer struggled to read his lines, Hurkacz took charge on centre court. He devastated Federer in an hour and 49 minutes, 6-3, 7-6(4), 6-0. After all, he had to remove the Swiss and his regalia, nearly permanent fixtures on the most treasured piece of real estate in all of tennis.

A month away from turning 40, Federer is staring at an uncertain future.

‘I don’t know. I really don’t know,’ insisted Federer when asked of his future. ‘I got to regroup. My goal was always for the last year and more to always try to play another Wimbledon. The initial goal, like you know, was to play last year. That was anyway never going to happen.”

“Obviously we’re going to speak a little bit tonight, depending on how I feel, then the next couple of days as well. Then we go from there. Just see, Okay, what do I need to do to get in better shape so I can be more competitive.”

“I’m actually very happy I made it as far as I did here and I actually was able to play Wimbledon at the level that I did after everything I went through. Of course, I would like to play it again, but at my age you’re just never sure what’s around the corner.”

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The surgeries on his knees – he had one on his left in 2016 and two on the right last year – may have fixed the physical damage, but can do little to address the sprouting seeds of doubt in his mind. Federer might be struggling to rediscover the faith in his faculties, just as much as he may be challenged by a demanding road to recovery.

Training, fatigue, recovery and performance are an intricate chain of events that allow the athlete a taste of peak performance. Age complicates this process. One objective of training is to break the homeostasis – a steady state condition for survival – leading to fatigue. This is expected to prepare the athlete for future stress, inviting adaptations within the body to produce a high level of performance.

<div class="paragraphs"><p>A model depicting the effect of training impulse, fatigue, recovery and response </p></div>

A model depicting the effect of training impulse, fatigue, recovery and response

Courtesy Fell & Williams, 2008

One argument has been that ageing produces deeper fatigue and impaired rate of recovery, combining to make it hard for older athletes to sustain a high level of performance over a period of time.

Federer’s tryst with knee surgery and an ageing body could be combining to force the Swiss into the deep end of the dotted territory. His losses to Nikoloz Basilashvili in Doha, Pablo Andujar in Geneva, Felix Auger Aliasimme in Halle and Hurkacz yesterday paint a pattern of suboptimal recovery from training and competition for the Swiss.

A lot of his conversation with his team and any experts he may consult will focus on developing a regimen of training that can help Federer perform at a high level. Over the past few months, he has expressed a desire to return to a competitive level again. The joy of returning to such a level has remained elusive for the genial Swiss.

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Federer has earlier suggested that he desired to play the Olympics and the US Open, plans that might be open for discussion now. But more than the loss itself, Federer may have been rattled by the manner of it, as he succumbed to Hurkacz without the semblance of a customary fight.

It is highly unlikely that Federer is going to throw in the towel. He loves the vibes from tennis and is curious enough to critically examine the mechanics of his recent performances. Even for a magician of his stature, father time might remain a mystifying riddle.

But with all the resources at his disposal, it would be a massive surprise if Federer walked away without trying to address the malaise of age.

“One more year! One more year!” pleaded a desperate fan as the eight-time champion waved to the crowd after the match. Only time will tell, if and how, Federer responds to the echoes of that universal plea.

(Anand Datla is a sports writer and a social worker with over two decades of experience in narrating tales of valour and vain efforts from around the world. He has attended and reported from international sporting events in badminton, cricket, golf and tennis.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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