Everything seems to be going in slow motion at the moment, but the reality is that it’s all happening far too fast. The camera gradually pans from one side of the famed Wimbledon Centre Court to the other. It reveals grown men unable to fight back their despair, while others applaud in both deference and sadness -- for they have lost royalty. The camera slows even more before stopping to focus on its target. Roger Federer looks up and waves one final time before fading into the bowels of the All England Club.
This time he is gone for good. The brilliant moments have suddenly been relegated to DVDs and rain-delay fillers. His stats are final, but his place in history is very much up for deliberation.
Of course, this scene hasn't taken place yet. We don’t know when Federer will retire. We don’t know how. Will he just segue straight into domestic life to help raise his two young daughters or will he leverage his emeritus status and stay on as a central figure in some capacity? Pete Sampras waffled for nearly a year after winning the 2002 US Open before announcing a former farewell in front of a few cameras. Andre Agassi’s departure four years later was far more public and emotional.
No matter when that inevitable day comes (and, for the record, Federer has said he has every intention to compete in the 2016 Olympics, even if he plays a limited schedule), what kind of vacuum is it going to leave? The tour’s viability isn't likely to be affected in any real tangible way, but the question becomes which players, if any, can fans really latch on to in the same mythical way?The Rafael Nadals, Novak Djokovics and Andy Murrays of the world carry an enormous amount of star power. In the past four years, that trio is responsible for 14 of 15 Grand Slam titles with Federer, who won his seventh Wimbledon title in 2012, the player to break through.
It’s no secret the 32-year-old Swiss has struggled this season. He won just a single title and fell out of the top five. Not until a pretty solid showing at the Paris Masters did Federer officially qualify to make the ATP World Tour Finals -- where he made the semifinals. And though he vows he’ll have a better 2014, we finally saw his human side, the guy who conceded he wasn’t on par mentally with his rivals.
I've seen Federer play plenty: in Miami, Paris, Wimbledon and New York. There’s something unique in the air when he’s on the court. And no matter how you feel about his place in history, his groundswell of support is unmatched from a global perspective. He’s beloved and cherished. Even today, while he struggles in lesser events, he’s still the head-turner, the guy you want to see succeed, whether it’s just out of adoration or pity.
Federer was a tremendous talent and 15, 16 years old, but his rise to the top of the record books didn't begin until years later, in 2003, when an unassuming, 22-year-old kid finally met the ambitions he had set out for himself: Wimbledon champ. From there, he utterly dominated, all the way to the tour’s Grand Slam high-water mark of 17 titles. And the scary part is a lot of those championships came without much resistance.
Perhaps he is so widely respected because of the respect he has shown the game. From his granular insight to his macro knowledge of the game, Federer has always loved what the game means to him. And there very well might be a lot more we’ll see from Federer, but based on his results this past year, 2013 was the first time we could legitimately start asking about retirement.
And when that day does come, the tour will go on just as it always has and people will watch -- even if that means dusting off those old DVDs.