There's something karmic about the tennis GOATs and their pastures. Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros' Court Philippe-Chatrier is an eternal classic while Novak Djokovic at Melbourne Park is an indomitable spectacle. For Roger Federer, that's Wimbledon—the Swiss' sleek all-whites and all-round elegance blending deliciously with the gentle greens to cook up a tennis treat.
That dish will not be served at this Wimbledon. For the first time since an 18-year-old made his professional debut at the All England Club in 1999, a year after winning the junior title there, Federer will not grace the lawns of Wimbledon. In each of the 22 editions of the Slam in the period save the canceled 2020 tournament, Federer has turned up and stamped his class, and walked away from a champion eight times, the most by any male singles player.
As this year's Wimbledon begins next week with some star-studded comeback faces, the one that isn't held as much significance. Especially given that Federer has undergone multiple knee operations at 40 and hasn't played since the quarter-finals on the same courts a year ago.
"It was just a matter of time of when it was going to come, wasn't it? We'd like to think it's not going to come, but then it shows up when you least expect it," Vijay Amritraj, a two-time Wimbledon singles quarterfinalist, says of the MIA (missing in action) Federer over a Zoom call.
"We've had a remarkable taste of what Federer has done over the last two decades. When you look at Federer, the thing we loved about the way he played was… basically that. The grace and elegance he brought to tennis show that he can be a master at it as well, winning it as many times as he did. So, will we miss him? Absolutely. Will the tournament go on at its best even without him? Absolutely."
Will Federer—he plans to make a full-time return to the Tour next year but hasn't won a Slam since the 2018 Australian Open—be able to reach his heady heights at Wimbledon again and add to his Slam tally of 20? "Well, it's not easy to do anything of this nature in your 40s," Amritraj says with a chuckle in a chat organised by Wimbledon broadcasters Star Sports.
"But when you have someone like Federer waiting in the wings, wanting to come back and do things on his own terms, that is exactly what he should do. Can he win again? Twelve months is a long, long time. So we'll have to see how it pans out. But we're talking about a great champion here. Muhammad Ali came back to become a world champion much later than everyone thought. But will it be hard? Oh, absolutely. And Federer knows it," Amritraj, who reached a career-high ranking of world No 18 in 1980, said.
Talk around one great veer into that of another. While Federer waits in the wings, his good friend Rafael Nadal has been busy flying away. The Spaniard surged to Slam No 22 at the French Open this month after breaking away from Club 20 in Australia. His triumph in Paris came despite his troublesome foot. The pain had to be neutralised by anesthetic injections. Nadal was clear he couldn't carry on playing in that manner, but after treatment in Barcelona, he said he would compete at Wimbledon. It's a Slam he hasn't played since losing the 2019 semi-final to Federer and hasn't won since 2010. Amritraj doesn't wish to strike off Nadal in his current form, even on grass.
"Cannot write him off," he said. "Listen, every time you think you're going to write this guy off because of his injuries, or because he plays too much tennis or he works too hard in a match and so on. The thing that amazes me about Rafa has always been his desire to win. That desire starts from the first point in every match. He doesn't differentiate between the first point and the last point, and everything in between. So, irrespective of the injury or whatever else, he is going to throw himself out there."
Unlike her other 40-year-old Swiss colleague, Serena Williams will be back at the Big W after a year's hiatus. The 23-time singles Slam winner hasn't played any competitive tennis in 12 months and will enter Wimbledon with a little game time from playing doubles in Eastbourne this week. Amritraj felt the key for her will be to keep the points short.
"It's going to come down to her fitness—is she fit enough to play seven matches to win Wimbledon again," he said. "The second thing is she might be short of match practice. The doubles in Eastbourne are going to help her a little bit but not that much. However, she knows how to play the majors. She's won this thing so many times. And I think when she gets on that Centre Court, she'll get that feeling again."