“If you take the reasoning further, it doesn’t really matter if I return in 2022 or not until 2023,” he said. “At 40 or 41 it’s the same. The question is whether I can keep pushing myself hard day in and day out. Today my heart says yes. So I’m going step by step. It’s another challenge I’ve faced so many times in my career, sometimes without the public realizing it. And even though I know very well that the end is near, I want to try and play some big games. It won’t be easy, but we’re going to try.”
Despite his smooth play, Federer has endured many hardships over the years: coping with lower back pain from his early 20s and recurring knee pain in the latter half of his career. Chances are, of course, that he will continue his rehabilitation and conclude that a comeback is impossible. Doctors who haven’t treated Federer have suggested that the long recovery period suggests this latest surgery was an attempt to regenerate articular cartilage in his right knee, perhaps involving microfracture surgery.
“Basically, there are two types of knee cartilage: the meniscus is one and the articular cartilage is the other,” says Bill Mallon, an American orthopedic surgeon and former professional golfer. Articular cartilage is the covering of bone that allows for almost friction-free movement of the knee joint. Articular cartilage has very little blood supply, so it regenerates very poorly or not at all. And the ability to regenerate is completely age dependent. The younger you are, the better you have a better chance of that cartilage repairing itself.”
Federer remains tied to the men’s record of 20 Grand Slam titles with longtime rivals Rafael Nadal and Djokovic. Nadal, who has been out of action since August due to a recurring foot problem, has said he plans to return to the tour in January. But Nadal, 35, and Djokovic, 34, are considerably younger than Federer, and the other men competing in the elite ATP Finals are even younger, all in their early to mid-twenties.
“It’s clear that Roger is an icon of our sport, and people all over the world love him,” Djokovic said on Wednesday after qualifying for the semi-finals in Turin with a 6-3, 6-2 round-robin victory over Andrey Rublev. “They love to watch him play, they love to see him around.” Djokovic added: “I’m sure he doesn’t want to end his career this way.”