Roger Federer announced on Thursday that he had undergone surgery on his right knee and would miss a series of tournaments, including the French Open in May.
The so-called Big Three of Federer, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, who have dominated the sport, will be down to the Big Two for as long as it takes for Federer to recover.
Federer, who is ranked No. 3 and has won a men’s record 20 Grand Slam singles titles, said the surgery had taken place on Wednesday.
“My right knee has been bothering me for a little while,” he said in a social media post. “I hoped it would go away, but after an examination, and discussion with my team, I decided to have arthroscopic surgery in Switzerland.”
Federer, 38, said his doctors had confirmed after the procedure that “it was the right thing to have done and are very confident of a full recovery.”
He made it clear that he expected to be able to play at Wimbledon, which begins June 29. He has won eight singles titles there, a men’s record, and held two championship points last year before losing in the final to Djokovic.
“See you on the grass!” Federer said in his post.
But there are naturally uncertainties about his ability to recover quickly and return to the fore at his age.
“The big challenge in my experience is the older you get, the harder it is to come back from anything,” Paul Annacone, Federer’s former coach, said in a telephone interview. “But these all-time greats are aberrations, not the rule, so you risk your own peril to predict what’s going to happen, pro or con. In 2010, when I started with him, people were wondering when he was going to retire.”
This is only the second surgery of Federer’s long career. He had the first in February 2016 to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee, which he injured while making a sudden movement as he was giving his twin daughters a bath. Though he returned to competition in April that year, he continued to struggle, and eventually cut short his season to further rehabilitate his knee and recover full fitness.
He roared back after a nearly six-month break to play some of his finest tennis: hitting through his one-handed backhand with new power and conviction. He won the Australian Open and Wimbledon in 2017 and the Australian Open again in 2018, shortly before returning to No. 1.
It has been quite a tennis renaissance, but he will now be forced to take another extended break from competition.
“I can promise you he is a very thoughtful decision maker,” Annacone said. “I think probably he approaches everything from the macro perspective: what gives him the best chance to do well and stay really healthy for a longer period of time.”
Federer said he would miss the hardcourt events in Dubai, Indian Wells and Miami, as well as the French Open, the next Grand Slam event of the year, which is contested on red clay. Last year, Federer accumulated more than 3,000 ranking points in that phase of the season: winning titles in Dubai and Miami, reaching the final in Indian Wells and reaching the semifinals at the French Open in his first appearance at Roland Garros since 2015.
Unable to defend those points this year, Federer’s ranking will slip, but he should still be inside the top 10 in June, even after a four-month break from competition. He should also still receive a high seeding at Wimbledon, which uses a formula that takes recent grass-court results into account.
Federer also announced that he would be unable to take part in a rescheduled exhibition on March 24 in Bogotá, Colombia, against Alexander Zverev. That exhibition was originally scheduled for November but had to be canceled at the last minute after large-scale demonstrations in Bogotá led to the imposition of a curfew.
The decision to call off that match left Federer in tears in the locker room. He was in tears again in Cape Town, South Africa, on Feb. 7, deeply moved as he and his longtime rival Rafael Nadal played an exhibition to benefit Federer’s charitable foundation that drew a crowd of 51,954 to Cape Town Stadium.
Federer showed no clear signs of a knee injury during that match, chasing down lobs and lunging for groundstrokes and volleys as he and Nadal played three sets of singles.
But one of Federer’s skills, Annacone said, is how rarely he discusses his injuries, “so you don’t ever really know quite how healthy he is.”
“We take for granted the way he plays that he’s generally pretty healthy, but he plays through a lot,” Annacone said.
He did openly struggle with his mobility and health during last month’s Australian Open, experiencing some back and leg pain as he battled his way to the semifinals, saving seven match points in a quarterfinal victory over Tennys Sandgren, an unseeded American.
There were concerns he might withdraw from his semifinal against Djokovic, but he decided to play after undergoing medical exams. He started strongly before losing the opening set in a tiebreaker, and then faded as Djokovic prevailed, 7-6 (1), 6-4, 6-3, on his way to the title.
“He just got to the semis of the Aussie Open by the skin of his teeth basically, but he was there, and those are the moments all those greats live for,” Annacone said. “So I’m not quite ready to write him off. And you look at his grass-court record and how unique his game is for grass, I don’t see any reason he can’t still win Wimbledon.”
Federer, who has indeed been getting retirement questions since the early 2010s, reiterated in Melbourne and Cape Town that he had no plans to retire.
But he has four young children with his wife, Mirka, and has also made it clear that he will continue only as long as it makes it sense for his family.
What drives him at this stage is his connection with the public, manifest in moments like the Cape Town match, but also his conviction that he still has the game to win more major titles.
He was asked after losing to Djokovic at the Australian Open if he still had that faith.
“I do believe that,” he said. “I think by having the year that I had last year, also with what I have in my game, how I’m playing, I do feel that.”
Though Nadal is one Grand Slam title away from tying Federer’s mark of 20, Federer is also within range of more records, including Jimmy Connors’s Open era men’s record of 109 career singles titles. (Federer has 103.) If he does return to action this summer ahead of the Olympics in Tokyo, he could also chase the one significant tennis prize he is missing: an Olympic gold medal in singles.
But for now, all that is clear is that Federer, at a very advanced tennis age, needs to recover from another surgery, one that outsiders did not see coming.