I said it before, one of the great, underrated accomplishments of Roger Federer has been his relative injury-free career. Sure, Federer dealt with a bout of mono in 2008, missed a couple of events in 2006 due to an ankle sprain, but otherwise the Swiss has avoided any serious concerns with his health.
That is until just recently.
As we know Federer has been battling a chronic back injury for a while now. It apparently flared up in a loss to Tomas Berdych at Wimbledon in 2010. He also had to withdraw from Doha last year and was questionable to even compete at the Australia Open, but he play shrugging off the injury to reach the semifinals.
And then at Wimbledon last July, twice he fought through the pain and it paid off as he won his 17th and what could be his last Grand Slam, that is if doesn’t take better care of his body.
As you age the injuries catch up. There is no shame in it and there’s just no avoiding it, ask any athlete. It’s a rite of passage. Father Time doesn’t care. He just rolls on. And Federer, now just weeks shy of his 32nd birthday, won’t get a pass here either.
What led me to write this wasn’t those back issues of last year or even when he was visibly suffering at Indian Wells against Rafael Nadal in March. What intrugied me were the comments he made after he lost, almost embarrassingly, yesterday in front of his biggest fans in Gstaad to Daniel Brands 6-3, 6-4.
“I decided after today’s warm-up whether I would play or not,” Federer stated afterward. “I’m happy that I was able to play because I’ve had problems for some time now, already in Hamburg. But it didn’t get worse during today’s match. I’m positive and I felt that it was getting better during the last few days.”
On a Swiss sports website, the translated headline read after the loss, Federer: “They said I should not play”. And inside that same story, Federer is quoted as saying (again, through translation), “Some of my team were of the opinion that it is wrong. They told me not to play.”
My translation of mess is this: Federer’s team didn’t want him to play Gstaad at all. But Roger understandably didn’t want to deny him home fans and his new cow a chance to see him play in Gstaad for the first time since 2004 (and maybe the last time?). Plus, he’s played through and won many matches before with that same bad back.
Also worth noting is if as Roger says his back was “getting better during the last few days” why was there any uncertainty over playing? Why leave that decision until after the warm-up if all is well?
In the end since Roger’s the boss, he wins.
So was it worth it? If Roger had to do it again would he have played Gstaad, risking further injury? Who knows. But he’s not better for it and likely neither is his back which probably could have benefited from a few extra days off.
In Roger’s defense, unless your faced with having to fight an in-prime Mike Tyson, every athlete wants to get in the ring. That’s what they do. That’s who they are. That’s what they live for. And I can’t blame them for wanting to get out there and compete.
But there come a time because of injury or illness to just stop. To say no. Rafael Nadal, who missed the Olympics last year to rest that knee, has been through that. As has Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Ivan Lendl, Serena Williams, Boris Becker and most recently Andy Murray who skipped the French to rest his back injury and look how nicely that paid off for the Scot!
Federer, though, has never missed a Slam and he’s hardly ever even missed those smaller events let alone retiring from a mactch! He’s been the iron man of tennis this generation. So the idea for him not playing to rest an injury must a new, absolutely foreign experience. It just has to be.
Of course everyone wants to see Federer play and he’s usually nice enough to give them a great show. But the fact is he’s no longer 25 anymore and when his body begins to breakdown he might be best served by paying more attention to what its saying. Sure, he can switch coaches, racquets and sponsors with the ease of a flick forehand winner, but he’s only got one and only one body. And he better take notes because that could be his toughest opponent yet going forward.
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