Roger Federer announced Tuesday that he will miss the rest of 2016 to continue rehabilitating his left knee, which he injured while drawing a bath for his young daughters in January. He’ll miss the Olympics and the U.S. Open. Federer, who turns 35 in two weeks, told fans that he intends to return next year and to keep playing “for another few years.”
Can he win another major? The record of other all-time greats suggests that Federer was already facing steep odds before withdrawing from the U.S. Open, which starts next month. Of the 17 men who have won at least three major titles in the Open era and are now older than Federer, only seven played another major after turning 35. Four reached a semifinal, two reached a final, and only Ken Rosewall, the Australian whose great career spanned three decades, won a major after turning 35; Rosewall won three.
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If Federer is able to return, he won’t just be contending with age, but with rust and lingering effects of his injury. There aren’t many historical analogues we can look to for guidance. Federer’s rival, Rafael Nadal, has twice come back successfully from long breaks, in 2009 and 2013, but he was in his 20s. (Nadal, now 30, is trying to come back from yet another injury setback this summer, after a mostly successful 2014 comeback that hasn’t yielded any more major titles.) Bjorn Borg tried a comeback just before his 35th birthday, but he hadn’t played a pro match in nearly seven years and never won another at tour level.
The closest precedents probably are Americans Jimmy Connors and Andre Agassi. Both had memorable runs at a U.S. Open after turning 35: Connors to the semifinals in 1991, after missing much of the previous season to a wrist injury, and Agassi to the third round in 2006, after missing that spring’s clay season with back and ankle injuries.
It’s possible that history can’t tell us anything useful about Federer. His game style and, perhaps, genes have left him nearly impervious to on-court injuries. He has been greater at an older age than almost anyone before him. And he plays in an era when old-timers are staying relevant, and even sometimes reaching new career-best levels of play, at older ages than ever before.
Federer said he doesn’t just plan to come back, he plans to come back with the same flair and net-rushing aggression he showed en route to the semifinals of this year’s Australian Open and Wimbledon. “I am as motivated as ever and plan to put all my energy towards coming back strong, healthy and in shape to play attacking tennis in 2017,” he said.