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Federer's farewell stage will be hardest of brilliant career

Simon BarnesNovember 17, 2014
Roger Federer came out to apologise to the O2 Arena crowd after pulling out of Sunday's final © Getty Images

The third age of Roger Federer came to an end in London on Sunday - and the fourth age began.

It's unlikely to be as glorious as the first three, but you never know with Rog. He did Promising Young Man as well as anybody, he did Supreme Champion better than anyone has played it before, and I'm inclined to think that he did Relative Decline even better.

So let's see how he deals with Endgame. Not with decline but with fall.

The years of promise were comparatively humdrum. Most champions have their Eureka! moment: the day when the world - and possibly the player - realises that we have a future champion on our hands. Federer had his at Wimbledon in 2001 when he beat Pete Sampras and reached the quarter-finals.

The following year was pretty quiet. It was not until Wimbledon 2003 that Federer made the transition from promise to achievement. With the world's neatest and cleanest ponytail and a playing style clearly influenced by the latest Harry Potter book, Federer won his first grand slam tournament and brought the first stage of his career to a conclusion of startling perfection.

His second-best days and even his third-best are better than most people's lifetime best

The second age was that of Federer the supreme champion: the natural and inevitable winner of grand slam tournaments (not counting the French). He spent 237 consecutive weeks as No.1 and no player in any sport has used his ranking so effectively.

Tennis is a game based on dominance hierarchies and Federer used his status to keep the rest in order. I doubt if any athlete has ever exploited serenity to the same devastating effect. Even his affectations - like the blazer and long trews at Wimbledon - seemed part of the package of perfection.

It was a glorious period to be following tennis. But sport is inherently unstable - that's what gives it its fascination and that's what made Federer's long stay at the top so remarkable. The third age of the Fed had to begin at some point. I'd be inclined to date it from 2008, when he suffered from a debilitating illness, mononucleosis, and his back first began to play up. At the same time Rafael Nadal moved from clay court specialist to all-court rival.

In 2009 Federer won the French Open - after Nadal was knocked out by Robin Soderling - and then Wimbledon again, but he was adjusting to a new reality. He was now one of two, three and even four serial contenders for the highest honours. The fact that he made this adjustment is as remarkable as any of the wonderful things he had done before.

Will this summer's Wimbledon be Federer's last grand slam final? © Getty Images

Bjorn Borg, as fine a player as ever swung a racket, was unable to make the same shift and retired at 27, six years younger than Federer is now. Federer kept on because he loved the game, he loved the conflict, and he's wise enough to know that a great athlete spends a long time retired.

He won the Aussie Open in 2010 and Wimbledon again in 2012 but, that apart, over the last five years he's been a contender, one of the crowd, a man forced to accept that his best days are done. He changed his racket, changed his coach and hooked up with Stefan Edberg, modifying his style. He now plays with more attack and some dashing retro serve and volley - shorter points suit an ageing player.

But his second-best days, and even his third-best days are better than most people's lifetime best. Federer, because of good management, sound temperament and continuing taste for the fray, has been able to keep on keepin' on, and it's been a joy to catch up with him whenever it's been happening. I was there on Centre Court for the Wimbledon Final this year hoping for one last miracle; bearing my disappointment nearly as bravely as Federer.

He has had a fine year, ending as world No.2: a ranking that makes it clear that he is still in thrall to the whole sweep of the game, not just the slams. But it ended in unprecedented circumstances at the ATP World Tour Finals yesterday when he dropped out before his final against Novak Djokovic because his back had gone again.

He came on court to make a charming speech of apology, in which he mentioned his age not once but twice. He's clearly feeling it. He's also said to have fallen out with his old mate and compatriot Stan Wawrinka in the course of the previous day's semi-final, which lasted nearly three hours and required Federer to save four match points.

John McEnroe suggested that the tension of the fall-out triggered the back-pain; I'd be inclined to guess it was the other way round, myself, but who knows? Certainly the whole thing was very un-Roger-like: as clear an indication as you could wish that Federer is moving into the final quarter of his career.

This will involve a Davis Cup Final against France next weekend. Federer has never won the Davis Cup and it would be a fine thing to add to the CV. Of course, the second member of the Swiss team is Wawrinka, which adds complications. Federer has no track-record for making up with people, though that's because he seldom falls out with anyone.

I wonder how Federer will play this last period. Will he announce retirement ahead of time and go in for a long Frank-Sinatra farewell tour? Will he walk away in despair after some grubby first-round defeat? Will he find one more slam and retire on the spot, in the manner of Sampras? Will he fade away gradually, playing fewer and fewer tournaments, until he is gone forever; fading away like the Cheshire cat, until only that faintly smug smile remains, the one he gives after the velvet-lash forehand has clipped the corner and the spare ball has been sent fizzing over to the bellboy, spinning like a crazy planet?

Your call, Rog. The first three ages have been as close to perfection as any athlete could manage. I hope he can pull off the last one. But it's the hardest of all to get right.

Where it all began: Roger Federer sported a ponytail for his first Wimbledon title win in 2003 and, here, a year later © PA Photos

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Writer Bio

Simon Barnes was Chief Sports Writer at The Times and UK Sports Columnist of the Year in 2001 and 2007. He writes about a wide variety of sports for, as well as and ESPNcricinfo. He has written more than 20 books including The Meaning of Sport and three novels. On Twitter he is @simonbarneswild

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