WIMBLEDON, England — There he was, a surprise, perhaps the largest of this Wimbledon fortnight: Roger Federer within the flesh Sunday on Centre Court.
As at all times, he looked handsome and freshly pressed. But as a substitute of his tennis whites, Federer wore a trim, dark suit to to have fun the a hundredth anniversary of Centre Court.
Flanked by a slew of past Wimbledon champions, Federer was readily available 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 primary time since 1998, when he announced himself to the tennis world by winning the junior event, Federer is just 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 quite a lot of matches on this court,” Federer said, speaking right into a microphone, his voice ringing across the court. He added, “It feels awkward to be here today in a special style of role.”
He continued for a short time, bathing in the nice and cozy adoration, taking within 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 another time.”
The fans sitting around me at Centre Court went nuts.
After which Federer was gone.
Wimbledon 2022 has been an odd journey. As an alternative of the standard electric energy coursing through every day, signaling the height of the tennis season and the beginning of the English summer, the texture has been barely off — like a master violinist struggling for just the appropriate note.
Throughout the opening 4 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 lads’s and ladies’s tours, which decided to not officially recognize the outcomes with rating points, essentially turning the complete affair into essentially the most lavish tennis exhibition ever held.
Those are some mighty blows.
But there’s something else that feels off about this Wimbledon.
As an alternative of charging into the tournament’s second week as the lads’s favorite and the fans’ hoped-for winner at a tournament where he’s worshiped like a god, Federer floated in for the centennial celebration after which was scheduled to jet back home to Switzerland.
The tournament goes on. But a Wimbledon without Federer is sort of a Wimbledon where there are strawberries but no cream.
How do you explain the facility of absence? Possibly through the shock of the lads’s draw and never seeing essentially the most familiar name. Or through a fan’s shout, equivalent to the one which got here 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 delivered to every match at Wimbledon.
The yell was geared toward Tsitsipas, of Greece, whose one-handed backhand and flowing strokes recall to mind the eight-time champion.
Close is just not the actual thing. Tsitsipas is not any Federer.
There are not any guarantees that Federer will ever play here again, though we now know that he hopes to. “I believe perhaps there’s slightly magic left,” said Tony Godsick, Federer’s longtime agent, as we walked the grounds last week.
“I’m unsure that magic means having to carry up a trophy,” Godsick added. “Magic means going out on your individual terms, being healthy, and having fun with it.” He looked out at one in every of the grass courts. “There will likely be places where he’ll give you the chance to do higher just due to the nature of the surface,” he said. “But when it doesn’t occur, he gave all the things.”
The deep, even ethereal connection Federer has with this vine-covered Taj Mahal of tennis is about greater than longevity.
A part of it’s style. Wimbledon is white linen, polished gold, light cotton fineries, ascots and the Duke and Duchess of Kent within the royal box. Every little thing concerning the refined Federer matches this palace, from his old-school game to the gliding way he walks.
A part of it’s substance: the tremendous art of victory. Federer was the champion in 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012 and 2017.
A part of it’s losing, but weathering the storm in the appropriate way.
For some time, the Swiss player appeared like he might never be conquered on the low-cut grass. Then got here Nadal. When Nadal finally beat Federer in the ultimate in 2008, their match was considered one in every of the best ever played. Who can forget Federer’s comeback, his saved match points and Nadal’s unquenchable desire? The match led to the dwindling sunlight, 9-7 within the fifth set, with Federer shedding tears of agony.
He suddenly seemed vulnerable, human, close by. 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 proper foil, the one to root most lustily against, the one player they most desired to defeat and send off with head bowed.
Within the last great match we saw him play at Wimbledon, possibly the last great match of his profession, the marathon championship final of 2019, Federer held two match points while serving against Djokovic. The Serb won each, 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 unimaginable not to think about that classic. There he was again, the defending champion, dashing across the identical baseline with the identical staunch resolve as when he snatched victory from his longtime rival. Djokovic may perhaps win this yr’s tournament, which might give him seven Wimbledon titles overall. But apart from amongst his loyal fans — and yes, there are numerous — watching him plow through opponents with metronomic efficiency and tight-lipped swagger doesn’t quite stir the soul.
He’s a marvel, all right. So is a microwave oven.
Then I watched Jannik Sinner of Italy, 20, who’s little known outside tennis but considered a possible future force inside it. Sinner may not win Wimbledon this yr, but there’s a very good likelihood he’ll in the future.
On Sunday, against one other precocious talent, 19-year-old Carlos Alcaraz, Sinner hit his forehands with a consistent mixture of heavy speed and daring curve. He added aces, drop shots and deep returns. The group on Centre Court swayed and swooned along with his every move.
It felt harking back to the energy surrounding a certain Swiss player at the beginning of his great Wimbledon profession. It was a reminder of the best way greatness gives method to greatness, one generation to the subsequent — and a reminder that Federer was not readily available to assist keep youth at bay. Not this yr, not less than. Possibly next.