Roger Federer returns to a rather different tennis scene after more than 400 days away

Djokovic has overtaken one record, Nadal equalled another, but Federer still has plans

Roger Federer
Roger Federer (Photo: Marianne Bevis)

It seems an eternity ago. But then, in ‘tennis years’, that is just what it is for the fine-tuned, super-athletic, iron-focused men who must dedicate over a quarter of their lives to this all-consuming sport.

So the return of one of tennis’s finest, Roger Federer, after more than 400 days away is a notable moment in the 2021 calendar. And a return after double knee surgery, and heading towards his 40th birthday is, understandably, a headline maker.

But a lot of water has gone under the bridge since Federer’s last tour appearance, his loss to Novak Djokovic in the semi-finals of the Australian Open on 30 January. For 2020 and beyond turned into a year like no other as a global pandemic did its worst.

There was no tennis at all from March through to August, no Wimbledon or Olympics, a French Open displaced from May to October, and London’s last ATP Finals leaving with a whimper rather than a bang—and still there are venues empty of fans, players forced to quarantine, and some tournaments still unable to function at all. The biggest Masters of the year in Indian Wells is normally played this month, but for the second year in a row it will be missing.

And much has changed in the Federer record-books during his absence, too. When he last played, Rafael Nadal was No1, but Djokovic would reclaim the top spot with his Australian victory. The Serb’s 282 weeks as No1 have now matched Federer’s record 310, and come Monday, Djokovic will officially take the record that many thought was insurmountable in the men’s game.

Another record that seemed set in stone was Pete Sampras’s 14 Majors, a tally reached in 2002. Yet within seven years, Federer had overtaken it, within 15 years, so had Nadal, and by 2019 Djokovic had also reached 15. And what went on to look like a near-impossible benchmark of 20 Majors by Federer in 2018 is also under threat. While Federer was absent for those 400 plus days, Nadal drew level with his 13th French Open title, and last month, Djokovic reached 18 with his record ninth Australian title.

Few, indeed, will be surprised if both Nadal and Djokovic go on to increase their collection in 2021: The Spaniard remains favourite at Roland Garros—which would make 21 Major titles—and should Djokovic win both Wimbledon and the US Open, he will match Federer’s 20.

The Swiss, thoug, was reconciled to such a scenario long ago. Talking to the media ahead of his Dubai run to a 100th title in 2019, he admitted that Nadal and Djokovic were likely to overtake his records:

“[Taking Sampras’s record], nobody can take away from me. My records will be broken anyway… I mean, they’ve been doing amazing things for many years now. That’s why they’re in the position that they are. I wish them the best to achieve all they want to do.”

There are still things Federer wants to achieve, however, and he has made no secret of wanting to prioritise another Wimbledon title, the Olympics, and maybe the US Open.

He also has another significant record on the horizon if he remains fit and injury-free. Federer has 103 titles, second only to Jimmy Connors with 109. Before the Swiss can contemplate any of that, though, he will have to absorb vital feedback from his latest venture. So it was probably a wise decision to bypass the emotionally and physically exhausting trip to Australia, which would have entailed travelling without family and support team for up to six weeks, plus two weeks’ enforced quarantine, and ‘jumping in at the deep end’ of a Major tournament with no competitive build-up.

Instead, he opted for a delayed Qatar Open in Doha, just a short flight from his training base in Dubai. Federer first played the ATP250 event 20 years ago, against players from a long-retired generation such as Ivan Ljubicic, Greg Rusedski, and Fabrice Santoro. Federer went on to win three Doha titles, a 26-3 run.

He has not played in Doha since 2012, but his history there is just one signpost to the scale of Federer’s ambition in coming back to the heat of competition in 2021.

He was Wimbledon junior champion back in 1998—that’s almost 23 year ago. He won his first Challenger title in October 1999, having first broken the top 100 that September. His first main-tour final came three months later, his first title in February 2001—exactly 20 years ago. Incidentally, he won his first doubles title that same month.

He would not turn 20 until after he had scored his famous victory over Sampras at Wimbledon, and before he turned 21, Federer won his first Masters title, in Hamburg, to break into the top 10.

Before his 22nd birthday, Federer had won his first Major, at Wimbledon, and with his first Australian Open title at the start of 2004, Federer debuted at No1. He did not give up the top ranking for a record 237 weeks, in 2008, and went on to reclaim it at the age of 36, in June 2018.

Another measure of the Swiss star’s longevity in what has become a golden era in men’s tennis is the range of Major champions from a different era that he met along the way. His first Basel opponent? The then No8-ranked Andre Agassi. His first French Open loss? The world No3 Pat Rafter. Before he was 20, Federer beat Michael Chang, Goran Ivanisevic, Richard Krajicek, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, and of course Sampras—all long retired.

Little wonder, then, that the excitement across social media has grown exponentially as it became certain that Federer was taking part in Doha—and not just among his army of fans. Tournament accounts around the world this week have been Tweeting, and the ATP itself has been bursting at the seams with Federer content: Fan stories, Federer quotes, previews of Doha, plans for Dubai, and most recently a long Q and A session on Instagram with junior fans in Doha.

So what are his prospects in a heavyweight draw? Federer is seeded No2, with world No4 Dominic Thiem at the top of the field, and seven of the eight seeds are in the top 20, including No8, Andrey Rublev, one of the stand-out players of the last few months.

The young Russian is drawn in the top half, though he is still playing in the ATP500 in Rotterdam, where he has reached the semi-final. Federer’s first match will bring the winner between Dan Evans, ranked 28, and the resurgent Jeremy Chardy, who came through qualifying to the quarters in Rotterdam. It is hardly an easy start.

The same may be said of the next round, featuring Borna Coric, who has shown an impressive return to his old top-12 form by reaching the Rotterdam semis.

David Goffin and Denis Shapovalov are the other seeds in this half, though many players ranked in the 30s may well fancy their chances against a 39-year-old playing his first match in over a year after knee surgery: John Millman, Taylor Fritz, Filip Krajinovic are all in this category, and Federer will no doubt remember very well his last against Millman, a four-hour-plus test at last year’s Australian Open.

So who knows what the next week will bring? Who knows whether Federer will play back-to-back in Dubai? He is certainly not making the journey to the Miami Masters, where Djokovic next picks up the story—with the record of weeks at No1 still rising.

One thing is certain: tennis is on borrowed time when it comes to one of its most famous sons. So Federer’s many admirers will hope for a golden autumn in this glittering career.

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