Sunday marked only the third time Federer has withdrawn from a match, an astoundingly low number in a pro career that dates back to waning years of Bill Clinton’s presidency. Yet at 33 years old, an age at which most tennis players have long passed their primes, Federer’s career carries with it an increasing sense of frailty, as if he is always one misstep away from falling off the pinnacle and beginning the inevitable slide from world-class athlete to shadow of his former self.
This idea of frailty stands in stark relief with the Federer’s unwillingness to go quietly. He spent much of the past year assaulting the notion of athletic excellence as ephemeral, giving hope to fans who’d like to believe they’ll be able to watch the Swiss parlay his unique athletic gifts for years to come. At the start of the season Federer took the court with a wider racket and new coach. He went on to lead the ATP tour in match wins and amassed a 3-2 record against Djokovic. He got better with age, winning 32 of the 35 matches—including two Masters 1000 tournament championships—that he played since turning 33 in August. And he was an integral member of Switzerland's Davis Cup Team, which qualified for that tournament’s finals for the first time since 1992. Not bad for a father of two sets of twins.
The reemergence of Federer’s back injury, however, conjures memories of his abysmal 2013 season, one in which that same body part severely restricted his on-court movement. He subsequently suffered through his worst year on tour in over a decade. Throughout 2014 Federer insisted that his return to form was primarily due to a once again pain-free back, not the new racket or the presence of Stefan Edberg in his box. He moved with such grace on the court it seemed as if he had found a way to stymie that particular injury once and for all. Sunday’s withdrawal shows that’s not the case, and now the question is how long the 17-time grand-slam winner can continue to endure the month-to-month grind that is professional tennis. Federer still exudes a type of enthusiasm for competing on the ATP tour that’s more commonly found in players many years his junior. Whether or not his body will cooperate is unknown.
Federer already has a habit of surmounting career setbacks that would devastate lesser athletes. When Rafael Nadal defeated him in the final at the 2008 Wimbledon final and subsequently displaced him atop the rankings, speculation about the Swiss player’s place in the pantheon of tennis greats became supplanted by speculation about what many foresaw as his imminent downfall. It was as if the final point of that epic match started a clock counting down the minutes until Federer would cease to dominate.
But just a few months after that defeat, Federer won the 2008 U.S. Open, thus setting the template for quickly responding to a setback by exceeding expectations. When he lost to Nadal in the finals of the 2009 Australian Open and openly wept on court, the notion that Federer was “finished” surfaced once again. A few months later he won the French Open for the first time. Since then Federer has been prone to suffering his fair share of devastating losses—the quarterfinals of Wimbledon 2010, the semi-finals of the 2011 U.S. Open—only to reassert his ability to compete with the best.