“I hope to see you next year. If not, this was a wonderful run here and I can’t be more happy to have won tonight.” – Roger Federer to Australian Open crowd, after defeating Rafael Nadal in the finals on Jan 29.
Roger Federer had just broken through to his win his first Grand Slam title in five years and his 18th overall at the remarkable age of 35. And then, just like that, the joy of the so-called FedFan was temporarily halted when their hero made the ambiguous statement above during his post-match, on-court interview. What did he mean, “hope?” Was he going to walk out of Rod Laver Arena and call it quits, ending his sports fairy tale by going out on top? Was he soon going to announce a 2017 retirement tour – the kind that’d see him feted in on-court ceremonies across the world while being given rocking chairs and watching people deliver his eulogies in person, like some sort of tennis Tom Sawyer? Or was this the careful parsing of an old man – at least in tennis years – wanting to cover all his bases in case injury, disinterest or bathtub-related accidents forced him from ever playing in Melbourne again.
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It was the latter. Well, that or a completely accidental word usage that freaked out people and launched dozens of “will he?” columns. That was confirmed on Tuesday when it was announced Federer has committed to play in his hometown tournament – the Basel Open – for the next three years, through 2019 when he’ll be 38 years old. Given that the tournament is situated near the very end of the ATP calendar (this year’s edition goes from Oct. 23-29), that would mean three more full seasons from Federer (including this one).
That’s a good way to calm the speculation without having to commit to an end date. Federer was never going to walk off into the sunset. That’s completely out of character – he’s going to drive until the tank is empty, not stop to fill up when he’s down to a quarter-tank. When he’s done, he’ll be done and he’s not done yet.
Jimmy Connors was 38 when he started his famous run at the 1991 U.S. Open (he turned 39 the day of his legendary five-set, fourth-round win over Aaron Krickstein). Ken Rosewall was 37 years old (and two months) when he won the 1972 Australian Open, which still stands as the record for the oldest man to win a major title. All these marks and milestones appear to be in play for Federer, who will turn 38 on Aug. 8, 2019, two months before that year’s Swiss Indoors.
Given that he’s eyeing up October 2019, it wouldn’t be surprising if the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo turn into his new carrot. Back in 2012, after winning a silver medal at the Olympics in London, Federer set the 2016 Rio Olympics as his longevity goal. “I have to make sure that I take care of my schedule, of my body, of my mind,” he said late in 2012. “Hopefully, I can still stay on tour for many more years and hopefully play the Olympics here in three and a half years or so, so I have to look far ahead and not just the next six months.”
He was 31 years old at the time.
The press release from Basel didn’t discuss specifics of what this three-year deal means. I assume it’s worth the paper it’s written on. Surely a tournament can’t hold Federer to playing if he’s no longer playing. Still, for fans of Federer, beautiful tennis, one-handed backhands, retirement debates, self-adulating interviews and high turtlenecks, the best news isn’t that Roger Federer has signed to play in October of 2019, it’s that, right now, he wants to play.
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