“If you push the reasoning further, it doesn’t make much difference whether 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 after day. Today, my heart says yes. So I’m going step by step. It’s another challenge like I’ve faced many times in my career, sometimes without the public realizing it. And even if I know very well that the end is near, I want to try to play some more big matches. It won’t be easy but we’re going to try.”
Despite his smooth game, Federer has played through plenty of discomfort through the years: dealing with lower back problems from his early 20s and with recurring knee pain in the second half of his career. There is, of course, the possibility that he continues with his rehabilitation and concludes that a comeback is impossible. Doctors who have not treated Federer have suggested that the long recovery period indicates that this latest operation was an attempt to regenerate articular cartilage in his right knee, perhaps with microfracture surgery.
“Basically, there are two types of knee cartilage: the meniscus is one, and the articular cartilage is the other,” said Bill Mallon, an American orthopedic surgeon and former professional golfer. “Articular cartilage is the covering of the bone that allows almost friction-free movement of the knee joint. Articular cartilage has very little blood supply, so it regenerates very poorly, if at all. And its ability to regenerate is completely age dependent. The younger you are the more chance you have of that cartilage regenerating.”
Federer remains tied for the men’s record of 20 Grand Slam singles titles with his longtime rivals Rafael Nadal and Djokovic. Nadal, who has been out of action since August because of a recurring foot problem, has announced that he intends to return to the tour in January. But Nadal, 35, and Djokovic, 34, are significantly younger than Federer, and the other men taking part in the elite ATP Finals are even younger, all in their early to mid-20s.
“Obviously Roger is an icon of our sport, and people around the world love him,” Djokovic said on Wednesday after qualifying for the semifinals in Turin with a 6-3, 6-2 round-robin victory over Andrey Rublev. “They love watching him play, love seeing him around.” Djokovic added, “I’m sure he doesn’t want to end his career this way.”