Roger Federer played in Geneva on Tuesday for just his third match in the last 15 months.
His opponent was Pablo Andújar, a solid clay courter in decent form on the back of a busy slate of clay events so far this year. Federer was a break up in set three, having played mostly impressive tennis for the latter two sets, but was foiled by some excellent Andújar returning and a wee bit of competitive rustiness.
These are still very much the early steps into a Federer comeback from two knee surgeries last year. In a couple of months the Swiss will turn 40, and this latest return to competitive tennis looks set to be the most challenging of his legendary career.
Appropriately his opponent Andújar also happens to know a thing or two about injury enforced absences, having missed multiple years from the tour thanks to triple elbow surgery. The Spaniard offered some of his own perspective about what it’s like to come back, and what it means to play against a giant of the game:
“You need to be very strong mentally, but once the injury is over, I think you enjoy tennis more than you used to.”
“I'm really excited as it was something I wanted to have: a match against Roger, just to tell my kids and grandkids when I get older that I played him.”
Pablo looked in a state of disbelief when Federer shanked a final forehand on match point. A sweet reminder of how large Federer has loomed over men’s tennis for the past two decades. ¡Madre mía! indeed.
One of the nice things about watching Federer in comeback mode is that observers get to see a narrative violation when it comes to his career. A pet peeve of mine throughout this golden generation has been a non-stop over-emphasis of the story of Federer as a balletic talent-freak, effortlessly dispatching all those who deign to come between him and this sport’s biggest trophies. While Federer’s extraordinary athleticism and raw shot making ability certainly deserve the praise they’ve received from all corners of the globe over the last two decades, there is an equally compelling chunk of Federer’s story which gets shunned. And in moments such as these, where the man must rebuild both his body and parts of his game, the iceberg flips, and those watching witness the larger, usually hidden, side to Roger Federer. The effortless recedes into the depths and the effort shimmers into view.
Comebacks are not easy for any athlete, even the greats. But expectations have also been skewed in recent years in tennis thanks to some borderline superhuman returns to the tour. Serena Williams dominated tennis after severing tendons in her foot, and later proceeded to reach Slam finals after becoming a mother despite the extended absence and the physical toll of pregnancy. Federer’s great rival Rafa Nadal has yoyo’d from healthy to injured for much of his career, constantly having to rebuild himself while always managing to keep one foot on the relentless treadmill that is elite tennis. And Federer himself defied most expectations the last time he came back from knee surgery in 2016/2017. On that occasion the Swiss managed to win the Australian Open twice and Wimbledon once after returning to the tour. But of course behind the scenes, enabling these comeback miracles, are work ethics and levels of application & agency that would seem vaguely psychopathic to most. The physiotherapy to rebuild muscle, the re-conditioning to recover specific types of tennis and match fitness lost to the abyss of injury absences, and the concentration and mental journey of building back to go to war with similarly crazy, and almost always younger, opponents.
Federer’s success is not effortless, and it never has been. By all accounts, from his trainers to his coaches, he has worked as hard as any player on tour. Instead the extraordinary effort and grit have allowed him the opportunity to look effortless. The opportunity for the easy-on-the-eye tip of the iceberg to shine so brightly and to be so consistently visible. This latest comeback is a great opportunity to appreciate that less celebrated side to him.
Federer may well once again confound theories about upper age limits in sports and lift more trophies in months to come, or he may finally succumb to the inevitability of senescence as he fights for his place at the top of a game with an increasingly ravenous chasing pack. But whatever happens in the months and years to come, enjoy this rare side of the iceberg while you can, before it flips back to the side commentators and observers love to wax lyrical about. For now, the struggle is clearer than usual, and tied inextricably to that struggle are the foundations that have made him one of the true greats of all sport.
Effort outshines effortless for now.
See you on Sunday
If you have any questions or thoughts about what you just read you can leave a comment below & I’ll answer it. No question is dumb.
The Racquet goes out twice a week, a (free) topical piece every Thursday and a (paid) match analysis piece every Sunday for final’s.
// Looking for more?
Rome Final Analysis - Nadal vs Djokovic: https://theracquet.substack.com/p/rome-final-nadal-vs-djokovic
Let’s Stop Screwing The Umpires On Clay: https://theracquet.substack.com/p/lets-stop-screwing-the-umpires-on
Madrid Final Analysis - Zverev vs Berrettini: https://theracquet.substack.com/p/madrid-final-analysis-
Analysis of the Tsitsipas vs Rublev Monte Carlo Final: https://theracquet.substack.com/p/monte-carlo-final-tsitsipas-vs-rublev
Daniil Medvedev Does *Not* Like The Clay - Do Flatter Hitters Have it Harder On Clay? https://theracquet.substack.com/p/daniil-medvedev-does-not-like-the
The Modernisation Of Tennis: https://theracquet.substack.com/p/the-modernisation-of-tennis
Osaka Wants To Learn To Slide Like The Others: https://theracquet.substack.com/p/osaka-wants-to-learn-to-slide-like
Federer, Nadal & Djoković Rivalry Impact: https://theracquet.substack.com/p/federer-nadal-and-djokovic-make-a
Tennis’ Identity Crisis: The Umpire Problem https://theracquet.substack.com/p/tennis-identity-crisis
Analysis of the Djoković Medvedev Australian Open Final: https://theracquet.substack.com/p/the-racquet-micro-not-macro-match
Great piece Matt. Do you think this is likely to be Rogers last year on tour? Seems his summer is big with the allusive Olympic singles Gold up for grabs and the hallowed turf of Wimbledon to come. He could skip RG as he has done in previous years but does he want to play one more time to say goodbye? @NickGoreeTennis