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After two knee surgeries, Roger Federer says, ‘I just feel like the story’s not over yet’

Roger Federer had two knee surgeries last year. (Samer Al-Rejjal/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)

As professional tennis emerges haltingly from the pandemic, tournaments continue to be canceled, postponed or staged with diminished fields and sparse grandstands, raising questions about when this year’s season will reach full swing.

The narrative is much the same for 39-year-old Roger Federer as he negotiates his competitive return after being sidelined for 13 months by two right knee surgeries amid the sport’s coronavirus shutdown.

In his first tournament back, the Qatar Open this month in Doha, Federer won his opening-round match and lost the next. The following day, he withdrew from an upcoming tournament in Dubai, acknowledging that he needed more training, at this stage, than match play.

“There [are] question marks all over,” Federer said during a remote interview with reporters. “When you come back from injury … the biggest challenge is to trust yourself 100 percent again in your capabilities of your body.”

Federer’s goal for 2021 is to peak at Wimbledon, the grass-court classic he has won a men’s record eight times and the Grand Slam event that gives him the best chance of adding to the record of 20 majors he shares with Rafael Nadal. As for retirement, Federer has no target date. He is leading with his heart and intends to play on, he has said, for as long as his body cooperates.

Whether the Swiss champion retires as the game’s greatest player depends on how the term is defined. Few would dispute that Federer is the game’s most elegant practitioner, wielding his racket like a magic wand and with a dancer’s grace and lightness. And after more than 1,500 matches and 23 years as a pro player, he still delights in trying new shots on court.

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In his estimation, the measure of his career will not be his Grand Slam tally. He said he had no trouble seeing Nadal equal his mark of 20 majors upon winning the French Open in October or watching top-ranked Novak Djokovic pull within two upon claiming a record ninth Australian Open in February.

“Sure, you like to keep every record, but all the records are there to be broken,” Federer said in Doha. “[Nadal and Djokovic] are unreal; we all know that. And I hope they keep on going. I hope they can do everything they possibly want and that they look back with no regrets.”

It is what he wishes for himself: to leave the game with no regrets.

Until then, Federer is driven by the belief that he has more to achieve and more to experience.

“I just feel like the story's not over yet,” he said.

Even-keeled excellence

Federer’s story already warrants volumes.

His career match record is 1,243-272 (82 percent), and he has never retired from a singles match. He won 103 tournament titles from 2001 to 2019 and spent 310 weeks at No. 1. And he is one of eight men to claim a career Grand Slam, winning all four majors on hard court, clay, and grass.

Paul Annacone, who coached Federer from 2010 to 2013, credits the Swiss champion’s longevity to several factors — starting with his exceptional hand-eye coordination and movement.

Temperament also plays a role.

“He loves the game of tennis and enjoys the environment,” Annacone wrote in an email exchange. “He has been at the top of the game for many years, and he accepts and enjoys the responsibility of being ‘Roger Federer’ — that sounds easy, but it is not.”

Federer also boasts extremely efficient “stroke production” — the ability to play at an extremely high level more easily than most — according to Annacone, who noted the same quality in his former pupil Pete Sampras, Federer’s teenage idol.

“It doesn’t take a ton out of them to play at levels most players can’t even reach,” Annacone said of Federer and Sampras. “When you add [Federer’s] pragmatic approach, the roller coaster of emotions tied to winning and losing tends not to surface in his life. He is pretty steady.”

While Federer took no joy in last year’s knee surgeries, he said he believes the break from the incessant pounding of the pro tour was beneficial, and he hopes he can “tack on” to the end of his career whatever time he spent not competing.

Nadal, at 34, and Djokovic, 33, appear to be doing similar calculus, selectively scheduling tournaments so they compete only when fully fit and, amid the coronavirus, when fully comfortable with pandemic protocols and international travel.

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All three withdrew from the prestigious Miami Open, which got underway this week and is typically a staple of their calendars. Federer bowed out March 1, followed by Nadal (back injury) and Djokovic. Serena Williams pulled out Sunday, citing the effects of oral surgery.

Martina Navratilova, who won 18 Grand Slam singles titles before retiring at 38, said that she wishes she had understood earlier in her career the wisdom of taking extended breaks from the tour. The notion of managing her calendar so she could peak for Grand Slam events was something she had never considered but realized later in her career is wise, particularly given how much longer it takes to rebound from injury or even a few weeks’ hiatus.

“As you get older, it takes longer to get up to the same level,” said Navratilova, a Tennis Channel analyst. “If I had three weeks off when I was 26 years old, I was training, start practicing again, I hit the ground running right away at the next tournament. When you do the same thing at 36, it just takes longer to get that feel back.”

Federer said that despite enjoying his newfound time with his four children, he missed his “second family,” which is how he refers to his friends and rivals on the tennis circuit, during his extended layoff.

Looking ahead, Federer said he suspected his knee will decide how far he can extend his comeback.

A major hurdle

The knee problem represents the first major hurdle of Federer’s career. He underwent arthroscopic surgery soon after the 2020 Australian Open, eyeing a return that June at Wimbledon. The pandemic scuttled Wimbledon, and physical complications scuttled Federer’s timetable.

He progressed quickly through the first four or five weeks of training, he explained. But after easy bike rides or walks with his children, his right knee started swelling up.

There was no choice but to have a second surgery. The decision to do the arduous work to rehab a second time was no decision at all, he explained, because he wanted to be able to ski with his family and play basketball and soccer with his friends again.

But he found the road to recovery was more difficult after the second procedure, given the muscle mass he had lost.

“I started from scratch,” Federer explained, “so it was right from the bottom up. I had to work my way back to a tournament.”

In the players’ lounge of a tournament in Santiago, Chile, on March 10, competitors gathered around the big-screen TV to watch Federer contest his first match in 13 months, against Britain’s Dan Evans. It was part out of curiosity, part homage. How many more chances will there be to study Federer’s slice? To use him as a measuring stick, as Federer did decades earlier with Sampras? To simply appreciate a master at work, even if he is laboring more than usual?

Federer won in three sets, then lost to 38th-ranked Nikoloz Basilashvili in three sets the following day.

Although he acknowledged a bit of surprise and dismay to find his shoulder sore afterward, Federer declared the experience a positive. Playing back-to-back, three-set matches, he noted, was a “steppingstone.”

It was a steppingstone not necessarily to a 104th tournament title or a 21st Grand Slam, but to a feeling of playing freely and having complete trust in his body.

For now, that is enough.