"What is grief, if not love persevering?”
This line from the recently concluded Marvel show, WandaVision, has struck a chord with many. The words have a profound meaning to them, and arguably define the very essence of love (and grief).
The words might also hold true for Roger Federer and his fans over the past 13 months. The 20-time Major champion has persevered during this tough period, and now daylight is within sight as Federer is all set to make his comeback to the tour on Tuesday.
The 39-year-old, who is seeded second (and has received an opening round bye) at Doha, will face one of Dan Evans or Jeremy Chardy in the second round of the 2021 Qatar Open. When Roger Federer takes the court this week, he will have ended a 405-day long break from the sport - his longest and most painful one by far.
Federer wasn't alone in his pain, of course; millions of fans shared the same emotion as their hero and, at times, perhaps even more. They knew that the Swiss' days on tour were already numbered, so taking away an entire year was adding insult to injury.
The Grief: Roger Federer's troubles in 2020
Following his first knee surgery in February last year, Roger Federer was expected to be ready in time for Wimbledon. The Swiss star would have missed the claycourt season, but that had been a common occurrence for even a healthy Federer in recent years.
Fate, however, dealt the 39-year-old a cruel hand. A setback on his injured knee during his initial rehabilitation meant that Federer had no choice but to undergo a second procedure, which ruled him out of the rest of the 2020 sesaon.
The questions started raising their ugly head soon after his announcement. Would Federer would ever be able to return to the sport? If he did, would he stand a chance against the fitter, younger and stronger players? The doubts began creeping up fast and furious in the minds of not only Federer's critics, but some of his fans as well.
I personally worried myself sick about Roger Federer’s footwork. Would he be able to shuffle across the court as quickly as he once did? If he wasn't able to play his unique brand of aggressive tennis built on impeccable balance and lightning-quick footwork, would he be able to stay with power players like Dominic Thiem and Andrey Rublev?
As depressing and worrisome as 2020 was though, there were a few silver linings too. The pandemic turned the tennis world upside down, just like the rest of the world, and the tour came to a halt for about six months. It was then that the ATP announced a freeze in the rankings - which came as a blessing in disguise for Roger Federer, who is still ranked World No. 6 ahead of the Qatar Open (recently displaced from the fifth spot by Stefanos Tsitsipas).
Roger Federer also got to spend quality time with his loved ones, watch his children grow, and above all, take time to heal completely. So all things considered, 2020 wasn’t perhaps as sad a year for Federer himself. Disappointing, yes, but not sad, given that he could for once be the family-man that he always wanted to be.
But then, sometime towards the end of 2020, Roger Federer revealed that his rehabilitation hadn’t gone as well as he had hoped. He acknowledged that he wasn’t yet back to his best, and that recovery at his age was tougher than expected.
The already worrying fans, who were hopeful of seeing him in action at the Australian Open, exchanged nervous glances. Was it truly the end of the road for Roger Federer?
The Perseverance: Roger Federer's love for tennis, and his fans' love for him
Roger Federer’s love for the sport is second to none. But there is one thing that he loves even more than the sport, and that is winning.
Many fans take exception to Novak Djokovic's zeal, raising their eyebrows whenever the Serb openly declares his lofty ambitions. Some find him arrogant, some say that Djokovic is greedy for glory. But is Roger Federer any different? I don’t think so.
Federer almost always displays his emotions openly too, in both defeat and glory. While he may be more diplomatic with his words than Novak Djokovic, there is no denying that Federer is just as hungry for success.
Perhaps in his mind Roger Federer knows that most of his records will be broken soon, given how Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal are showing no signs of slowing down.
It is unlikely that Federer will win more than a Grand Slam in the future, which in itself is wishful thinking at best. That in essence means Nadal is in prime position to make the Slam record his own. Moreover, Djokovic has broken Federer's mark of 310 weeks as World No. 1, leaving the Swiss with no truly significant record to his name.
Does that have anything to with why Roger Federer has persevered throughout this period, fighting through a potentially career-ending injury? Does the 39-year-old want to experience glory once again, by beating the best in the business and showing that he is not done yet?
Another Wimbledon title, along with a singles Olympic gold, will certainly be high on Roger Federer’s priority list in the final phase of his career. Then there is also the possibility of Federer finishing with more career titles than Jimmy Connors. If the Swiss manages to do that, he will have his name etched on at least one major record by the time he calls it a day.
But to his fans, none of that really matters. Some might say the love that fans have for Roger Federer arguably eclipses the love that Federer has for tennis.
We have reached a point where we no longer expect the Swiss legend to win title after title, as he did in 2017. All we want to see is him tossing the ball up, arching his back, leaping into the air, and letting rip a picture-perfect serve. We want to see him strike one of his majestic forehands and pull off an impossible pass. We want to see him paint the line with his beautiful one-handed backhand. We want to see him pull off a delicious drop shot out of nowhere.
But above all, we want to see him smiling and enjoying himself on the court. We do not wish to bid adieu to our hero, not just yet; for us, his journey is far from complete. Because if it was complete, how could we really go on with our lives?
That said, we can't stop ourselves from wondering what sort of tennis Roger Federer will bring to the table this time around. Federer's long-time trainer, Pierre Paganini, recently revealed that his ward's muscles had considerably deteriorated during his time away from the sport. Would that possibly affect his footwork and speed? Only a couple of days remain before we get answers to all our questions.
Of course, the fans aren't the only beneficiaries of Roger Federer’s comeback. The ATP, the tournament organizers and the sport itself stand to gain a great deal too, for Federer is undoubtedly the sport's finest ambassador.
All eyes around the world will be on Doha's center court this week. The clouds of grief and uncertainty have finally gone away, for both Roger Federer and his fans. Love has persevered, as it usually does.