Roger Federer, 34 years old and no longer impervious to the ravages of age, has pulled out of the French Open. He made the announcement Thursday on his Facebook page, writing:
“I have been making steady progress with my overall fitness, but I am still not 100% and feel I might be taking an unnecessary risk by playing in this event before I am really ready. This decision was not easy to make, but I took it to ensure I could play the remainder of the season and help to extend the rest of my career.”
Federer’s decision is (presumably) based on the state of his sore back, which he largely blamed for his second-round loss at the Italian Open — the final major tune-up for the French Open — about a week ago. Bypassing the second Grand Slam of the year means that Federer will be well into June with just 15 ATP matches under his belt in all of 2016. He has yet to win a title.
Federer has played just five matches this year since a strong Australian Open, where he lost in the semifinals to eventual champ Novak Djokovic. Federer then had a freak domestic accident while still in Melbourne and that required minor knee surgery. He had to put off a planned return at Miami with a stomach virus. He got a few matches in at Monte Carlo, then his back started acting up while he was training in Madrid, and he had to pull out of that event as well.
This sequence of events isn’t enough to wipe away the general sense that Federer has led a charmed life. Even the bad back still seems, and is presented, more as a speed bump than a serious obstacle. It’s certainly too soon to jump to conclusions about his future in the game.
Federer enjoys tormenting Djokovic and messing with resurgent Andy Murray. Federer knows how to get in the head of his former wingman and Swiss fellow countryman, French Open defending champion Stan Wawrinka. Federer has battled rejuvenated Rafael Nadal plenty of times on the red clay. Enjoyable as it might be, Federer knows that the odds on his winning at Roland Garros have always been slender at best. He’s only won the French Open once, and that was largely because of the absence of his rival, Nadal.
On the other hand, Federer remains a legitimate threat to win the major that begins less than a month after the end of the French Open, Wimbledon. Federer and Djokovic towered head and shoulders above the field in London last year. And with the Olympic games in Rio coming up on hard courts soon after Wimbledon (Federer has never won the singles gold medal),it makes sense for Federer to everything in his power to ensure that his 34-year-old muscles and bones are in the best possible shape for those two events.
He is revered globally for his balletic style and grace. He’s lived by the rapier rather than the bludgeon. He has not merely survived, he has prevailed, becoming the all-time Grand Slam singles champion at a time when his compelling battles with rivals as well as numerous bigger, stronger men took men’s tennis to new heights.
All that makes it easy to forget that Federer, whose arms look fit to lift nothing heavier than the occasional tennis trophy, has also taken the concept of the ironman to a new level. He’s been durable but more tensile and corrosion-proof than iron. If he were a metal, he’d be titanium.
But even an ironman eventually clanks to a halt. The first of his numerous records to end was his appearance in consecutive Grand Slam semifinals (23). Next, his record for consecutive Grand Slam quarterfinals ended at 36. He hung on to his record for consecutive appearances in Grand Slam events until this week. His streak ends at 65.
The impressive thing? That simple longevity record is open to all comers. The No. 2 man on that list Wayne Ferreira, who, unlike Federer, didn’t even win one. Federer has played 352 Grand Slam singles matches; Ferreira, 159. Nobody has ever been as good and as durable at the same time as the nimble Mr. Federer.
“This decision was not easy to make,” Federer wrote, “but I took it to ensure I could play the remainder of the season and help to extend the rest of my career. I remain as motivated and excited as ever and my plan is to achieve the highest level of fitness before returning to the ATP World Tour for the upcoming grass court season.”
Federer clearly is as enthusiastic as about playing. He might be drifting earthward in his third decade, but he hasn’t crash-landed yet.