COMMENT: Roger Federer must be forever celebrated, but tennis no longer needs him

Roger Federer may be about to embark on his final year on the ATP Tour, but his inevitably impending retirement should not be feared.

When Roger Federer picked up a major sporting award in Switzerland this week, for arguably the first time he publicly acknowledged the impending end of his tennis career.

And that was all it was – an acknowledgement that it’s coming.

“I hope there is still something to see from me next year,” he said. “But if that was it, that would have been an incredible ending for me at these Sports Awards.”

Predictably, the headlines started to multiply and mutate into something much more sinister – a bit like when Gizmo gets wet in Gremlins.

‘ROGER FEDERER DROPS SHOCK RETIREMENT HINT,’ one read. ‘ROGER FEDERER HINTS HIS PLAYING FUTURE IS IN DOUBT,’ said another.

Obviously, websites and journalists have a basic requirement to attract readers. We understand that because we are in the same position.

Roger Federer backhand blue

However, is 39-year-old player coming back from two knee operations in one year mentioning in passing that retirement is approaching really news? Even if it is, what it is not is a ‘shock’.

The outpouring of sadness from Roger Federer’s legions of fans is more understandable. Following ad supporting Federer, for many of them, has literally been a lifelong pursuit. For many, Roger Federer is tennis.

Even as a neutral, we get it. We were fortunate to see Roger Federer in person at his very best and it was, in complete honesty, an absolute privilege.

But the truth of the matter is, and as unpopular a reality as it may be, that tennis itself has already moved on from Federer.

Of course, he is still capable of winning any tournament, but it’s also fair to say that no one is surprised when he struggles to get past a quarterfinal anymore, even before his injury.

Roger Federer Australian Open

We want to stress that we present that reality with no shame for Federer to bear at all. Frankly, the fact he is competing at the level he has deep into his late-30s is testament to his enduring brilliance.

Forget the tennis GOAT debate for a moment – for Federer that is almost too small given he has already secured his place among the greatest sporting icons in history regardless of anything that happens now.

But while 2020 was tough for tennis, what it did do was essentially transition us into the post-Federer era and show us that the sport can thrive without him.

Dominic Thiem has won one Grand Slam and reached the final of another, as well as beating both Rafael Nadal (twice) and Novak Djokovic. That’s a season that Federer has not been able to produce since 2017.

We have also seen Alexander Zverev begin to step up to the plate. He probably isn’t developing as quickly as many expected, but he can finally be relied upon to go deep in Grand Slams.

Dominic Thiem at US Open

Daniil Medvedev has continued to shine too although he left it late in the season before asserting himself.

As brilliant as Roger Federer has been, I don’t think that, in 2021, you’d make him favourite against any of those three players, as well as Nadal and Djkokovic, even if he comes back as the player he was back in January when he was struck down by injury.

Don’t get us wrong, we hope Federer comes back as soon as he possibly can. It’s an absolute privilege to watch him and we hope to be able to for a little longer to come.

But it’s similarly important to resist the temptation to believe that tennis needs Roger Federer. A brilliant bonus he might be, but tennis has moved on from him and the baton has been safely passed into what appear to be VERY safe and worthy hands.

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