To the fervently loyal fans of Nadal and Djokovic, he was the perfect foil, the one to root most lustily against, the one player they most wanted to defeat and send off with head bowed.
In the last great match we saw him play at Wimbledon, possibly the last great match of his career, the marathon championship final of 2019, Federer held two match points while serving against Djokovic. The Serb won both, tracking down the last of them by skimming across the baseline and, as he so often does, producing a winning passing shot. About an hour later, he won the match, 13-12, in a fifth-set tiebreaker.
Watching Djokovic play on Center Court last week, it was impossible not to think of that classic. There he was again, the defending champion, dashing across the same baseline with the same staunch resolve as when he snatched victory from his longtime rival. Djokovic may well win this year’s tournament, which would give him seven Wimbledon titles overall. But other than among his loyal fans — and yes, there are many — watching him plow through opponents with metronomic efficiency and tight-lipped swagger does not quite stir the soul.
He is a marvel, all right. So is a microwave oven.
Then I watched Jannik Sinner of Italy, 20, who is little known outside tennis but regarded as a potential future force within it. Sinner may not win Wimbledon this year, but there’s a good chance he will one day.
On Sunday, against another precocious talent, 19-year-old Carlos Alcaraz, Sinner hit his forehands with a consistent mix of heavy speed and daring curve. He added aces, drop shots and deep returns. The crowd on Center Court swayed and swooned with his every move.
It felt reminiscent of the energy surrounding a certain Swiss player at the start of his great Wimbledon career. It was a reminder of the way greatness gives way to greatness, one generation to the next — and a reminder that Federer was not on hand to help keep youth at bay. Not this year, at least. Maybe next.