Alexander: Federer retirement another sign tennis’ golden era is ending

The end of a magnificent men’s tennis era hasn’t arrived yet, but you can see it from here.

Roger Federer called it quits Thursday morning, announcing that the Laver Cup team competition in London next weekend would be his final event, albeit one that his management company runs and that Federer himself played a key role in launching in 2017.

I suppose that’s as good a place as any for the heartfelt goodbye that Federer deserves, though it would be more appropriate if he’d had a chance to bow out in a Grand Slam event as Serena Williams did (apparently) at the recent U.S. Open.

These are twin temblors in the tennis world, the departures of two all-time greats within a month. Serena not only won more majors in the Open Era (23) than anyone of either gender but redefined this sport for an entire generation of African American hopefuls. Federer, consistent and graceful on and off the court, won 20 Grand Slam titles and was part of a memorable three-pronged rivalry with Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.

It probably was a matter of time before this announcement. Federer hadn’t played since July of 2021 at Wimbledon – where he won his first Slam in 2003 – and at age 41 and following a series of knee operations, his determination to get back on the court seemed more hopeful than realistic at times.

To my tennis family and beyond,

With Love,
Roger pic.twitter.com/1UISwK1NIN

— Roger Federer (@rogerfederer) September 15, 2022

For those in Southern California whose main opportunity to watch top-shelf tennis is the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells every March, the mind returns to 2019, the last time Federer actually played the tournament. He was lined up to face Nadal in the second match of Saturday’s semifinals, but just before the first match of the day Nadal withdrew because of a problematic right knee.

It was a disappointment for a lot of people besides Nadal – ticket holders, the suits at ABC who had taken over tournament coverage from corporate sibling ESPN in anticipation of a Federer-Nadal matchup, promoters, marketers, ticket scalpers, etc.

And it was just as much of a disappointment to Federer, who learned of the withdrawal in a text from Nadal himself and responded with this tweet: “Sad we couldn’t face off in another epic matchup, but hopefully we have a few more to come. Get better soon Rafa. #Fedal”

Sad we couldn’t face off in another epic matchup, but hopefully we have a few more to come. Get better soon Rafa. #Fedal pic.twitter.com/56wGwWjEGt

— Roger Federer (@rogerfederer) March 16, 2019

Respect between competitors. There are times it’s unusual. In the case of Federer and Nadal, two of the sport’s classiest individuals, it was natural and wonderful.

They would, in fact, play twice more that year, Nadal winning at Roland Garros (naturally) and Federer at Wimbledon. And that was it. Nadal was 24-16 head-to-head against Federer, while Djokovic had a 27-23 lifetime edge and won their last meeting in February 2020 in Australia. Federer finished with 20 Grand Slam titles; Nadal, 36, has 22 and the 35-year-old Djokovic has 21 but did not play the Australian and U.S. Opens in 2022 because he was unvaccinated.

But Federer stood out as maybe the most balanced personality, and certainly among the most self-aware, on the traveling circuses that are the pro tennis tours. His equanimity, in victory or defeat, was as impressive as his shot-making.

It might have had a lot to do with his background as a child of Basel, Switzerland, with parents who by all accounts encouraged rather than pushed. Prodigies are expected to specialize early on, but as New York Times tennis correspondent Christopher Clarey noted in the 2021 book “The Master,” Federer ultimately chose tennis over soccer at age 12, and up until then also dabbled in squash, badminton and basketball.

And as he became accomplished, and then a champion, and then a candidate for (you knew this was coming) the GOAT, Federer seldom if ever displayed the runaway ego that so many superstars in so many sports have been known to flex.

It made it so, so easy to pull for him.

Some of it was because of his personality. Some of it was his realization of how unappealing brattiness could be; Clarey recalled when a 19-year-old Federer broke a racket after muffing a volley on a match point, walked off angry at himself for acting out and decided that was enough of that. And some may have been the influence of his wife Mirka, who had played on the women’s tour and knew how crazy the environment could be.

During the 2019 tournament at Indian Wells, Federer was asked if he could envision being a coach or TV commentator in retirement and said he doubted it, adding, “Being back on the road for 20-plus weeks is not gonna happen. I have done that enough for the last 20 years.”

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But he expressed confidence in the next wave of stars to pick up the torch: “l think a lot of guys have a very interesting story to tell. … That new wave is inevitably going to win Slams and tournaments, and then we will hear more about them.

“So I think it will be fine, but I think it will be a transition, no doubt about it, like when Pete (Sampras) and Andre (Agassi) started to go away and we had a lot of different Grand Slam champions at that time, which I thought was quite exciting. But people said, like, ‘Where is the guy that wins all the time?’ And then when you have a guy winning all the time, then they say, ‘Where are the guys winning separately?’ “

Carlos Alcaraz, the 19-year-old U.S. Open winner and current world No. 1 from Spain, seems poised to lead that new wave. But he and his contemporaries will have huge shoes to fill.

And they’ll have quite the example of class and dignity to emulate.

jalexander@scng.com