Is Roger Federer’s mind-blowing Grand Slam streak in jeopardy?

(Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

There are lots of things tennis players don’t want to hear: "Double fault," "rain delay," "that’s a disqualification, Mr. Fognini." But if there are two words tennis players, and athletes in almost any sport, want to avoid hearing or saying most, they’d be "back injury." Tiger Woods knows what I’m talking about.

That sensitive, often career-altering topic, is what Roger Federer discussed Monday as he withdrew from his first clay-court tournament of the season in Madrid. After arriving in Spain for the event, the all-time Grand Slam leader said he hurt his back "a little bit in practice" and wasn’t going to be able to get it right in time for his opening match on Wednesday.

(Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

This isn’t Federer’s first go-round with back problems. He dealt with a lingering injury during his lost season of 2013, when he went 45-17 while recording his earliest recent exits at Wimbledon (second round) and the U.S. Open (fourth round). In that season he earned just a single tournament win – at a small event in Halle – and finished ranked No. 6 at the end of the year, his worst since he was an ATP up-and-comer. At the time, the 31-year-old Federer figured to be suffering from the ravages of age and the inexorable march of time, but he later revealed he’d been dealing with back issues that year. Some rest and a more modern racquet later, Federer was back to playing great tennis in 2014 and 2015. The problem was Novak Djokovic was playing even better, beating Federer three times in the last seven Slam finals.

It’s already been different in 2016. Federer has missed time this season with knee surgery after a freak bathtub incident, a stomach virus and now this back problem, which The Fed has deemed minor even though everybody knows there’s no such thing as a minor back injury when your successes or failures in a sport are dependent on movement, flexibility, power and precision. Even the smallest back injury throws all of that out of whack. 

”It’s been a tough year,” Federer told reporters on Monday. ”I hope it gets better from here.”

(VALERY HACHE/AFP/Getty Images)

He’s right about that first part: Federer has played three tournaments and withdrawn from five. Fans hope he’s right about the second part too.

In downplaying the injury, Federer said he anticipates playing the next clay-court event in Rome, which is great news for the dedicated FedFan but seems presumptuous given that Rome begins Sunday and Federer would, at latest, play next Wednesday. If an injury was bad enough to keep him out of Madrid on a Monday, there’s absolutely no guarantee it’d be better seven or eight days later. 

Looking ahead even more is the entire reason for these anticipated clay-court stops in Madrid and Rome: the French Open, beginning May 22. In the ideal, Federer’s back would get better before Rome, he’d play the event as a tuneup for Roland Garros and then be on the courts in Paris before a busy summer that’ll include the Rio Olympics.

Does this look like a man confident he’ll be playing next week? (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

But what if Federer doesn’t play Rome? What if his back is still balky before Roland Garros? It’d seem like an easy decision: Don’t play the French Open – a tournament he’s only won once and hasn’t been past the quarters in the last three years – and prepare for the majors in which he’s better suited to contend: Wimbledon, the Olympics (which will be played on a hard court) and the U.S. Open. It would seem like a no-brainer: Rest today to prepare yourself for tomorrow.

This is Roger Federer though. He doesn’t miss Grand Slams. The last time he did, Who Wants to be a Millionaire? was the No. 1 show on TV. That was back in 1999, when he missed that year’s U.S. Open. Since then, he’s played every one – 65 in a row – meaning he hasn’t missed a single major this century. That record streak of 65 is more than two years better than the No. 2 player on the list. Federer has actually never missed a Slam for injury reasons. The two he didn’t play (the 1999 Australian Open and 1999 U.S. Open, which took place when he was 17 and 18, respectively) were only because he failed in qualifying. 

(Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

Given Federer’s streak, the pull of playing, even with a slightly tweaked back, may be too strong. We’ve seen it from Cal Ripken and Brett Favre as they forged through their own Ironman streaks. Sometimes you play hurt. Federer should give up that impulse though. If his back isn’t 100 percent (or as close to 100 percent as it’s ever going to get for a 34-year-old tennis player who’s competed in nearly 1,400 professional matches) he has to bail on Paris. 

The streak is going to end one day and though the idea of going out romantically, without ever having missed a Slam, is certainly alluring, playing at a high level at 35 years old and beyond should be the bigger goal, something that would be jeopardized by returning too quickly from a back injury just to keep up a record he already owns to play a tournament at which he’s never been very successful.