Roger Federer at 40; fighting time, history and statistics

Now 40, Roger Federer has reached the age where professional tennis players normally win only a few sporadic matches. Since Ken Rosewall’s last Grand Slam exploits in the 1970s, only Jimmy Connors and Ivo Karlovic have made it past 40 and most players are long-retired

8 August 2021

In July 2019, when he came within one point (twice) of perhaps the greatest achievement of his career at Wimbledon (beating Rafael Nadal and then (Novak) Djokovic in a Grand Slam to win the title), Roger Federer was almost 38 years old. The challenge he faced from the physical laws of top-level tennis was something of a wonder.

The rest of his season – in particular his Masters – and even the start of his 2020 year – a semi-final in Melbourne – reinforced this impression that time had no normal grip on the winner of 20 Grand Slam titles between 2003 and 2018, who was then alone at the top of this race to tennis eternity.

Twenty months on from his defeat by Djokovic in Melbourne, the picture has taken on wrinkles and girth. While it is not clear what percentage of Federer’s current situation is due to the pandemic, his double right knee surgery or the limitations of his age, the Swiss is still not retired, but his activity and level of performance are nothing like his usual self.

Forty is an age at which competitive tennis is not usually an option

His stats in 2021 are unheard of for a player his age, who began his rehabilitation by re-learning to run and climb stairs late last summer. Federer won seven of his eight major matches at the French Open and Wimbledon. But his clear defeat in three sets against Hubert Hurkacz, his 6-0 loss in the third set, his lack of mobility and his recent withdrawals for physical reasons (Olympic Games and the North American Masters 1000) all point to a stagnation and a level that perhaps he can no longer push back.

It would be terrible for him if this were to happen, but in reality, it would be no more amazing. Idolised by millions around the world, Federer remains a flesh-and-blood human being, with all the age-related contingencies that some of you players-readers already know – and the rest of you will, too.

Forty is an age at which competitive tennis, especially at the level Federer has helped raise it to, together with Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, is not usually an option. The statistics speak for themselves. And if we are going to list the most striking of them all, it is less to condemn the idea of a possible Federer comeback than to give the Swiss and his fans a perspective on possible future achievements with the power he has left.

What the stats say

To the question “What can a top tennis player hope for at the age of 40?” Only two players at that age or more have won matches on the Tour in the past 40 years; Ivo Karlovic, who is still active, and Jimmy Connors, another tennis legend.

The second way of looking at tennis is through the lens of the Grand Slams in the Open Era. While 71 matches in the world’s four biggest tournaments have been won by 40-somethings since 1968, only four of those victories have been since 1978, and here again Karlovic and Connors are the two points of reference.

Croatia’s Karlovic has won nine matches on the ATP Tour since turning 40, including three at Grand Slams. Last month, 139 days after he turned 42, he beat Bernabe Zapata Miralles 6-7, 6-1, 6-4 in the first round in Newport.

Karlovic’s presence at this level – he is 208th in the world and was 88th when he turned 40 – is due to his giant serve (2.11m, 6ft 11in). In Newport, he hit 24 aces in 15 service games, won 87 percent of the points behind his first serve, 56 percent behind his second and saved all six of his break points. With this array of skills, he reached the last 16 at the Indian Wells Masters 1000 in 2019, the month after he turned 40.

This kind of performance is well within the reach of Federer at his eventual current level. Yet it is hard to see what the Swiss could do in Shanghai (if the tournament is not cancelled) or at the Rolex Paris Masters in November, the only Masters 1000 events left on the schedule, following his withdrawal from Toronto and Cincinnati. Federer’s aim seems to be one last  successful Wimbledon.

Connors, the other 40-something legend

Connors’ case brings us a little closer to that of Federer. The legendary American left-hander has two things in common with Federer; he is the only man to have won more than 100 professional titles (109 for Connors, 103 for Federer), and he too reached a Grand Slam semi-final at a ripe old age.

Connors was 39 at the time of his historic run at the 1991 US Open, while Federer was 38 years and 5 months when he made the last four at the 2020 Australian Open. But there is one notable difference. Connors won his last major at age 31 (1983 US Open) and it was a relentless appetite for competition that propelled his career beyond 35, rather than any quest for a record. Connors had all but disappeared from the top of the rankings in 1990.

Connors had the strength to win eight professional matches after his 40th birthday, including one Grand Slam match in the first round of the US Open in 1992, a three-set victory over Jaime Oncins.

He was 42 years and 296 days old when he won his last Tour match, a round of 16 victory over Martin Sinner in Halle in 1995. If Federer is still playing on the Tour at this age, we’re looking at July 2024 and that would give us three more years with the Swiss on tour. Connors’ best Tour result as a 40-something was a semi-final in San Francisco in 1993, aged 41 years and 241 days. Federer will be that age around Wimbledon 2023.

Federer – Rosewell rivalry for longevity records

The Grand Slams. Let’s talk about them because they are the only ones that really justify the Swiss’ interest, at least if we follow his public statements and his calendar choices. Only he knows if he feels he is still in the running for a 21st major and the record-breaking race with Nadal and Djokovic.

A Grand Slam victory would allow him to break the age record, held by Austrian Ken Rosewall, who won the 1972 Australian Open aged 37 years, one month and 24 days, six months older than Federer was himself when he won the 2018 Australian Open (aged 36 years, five months and seven days).

The records of the Open Era tell us that you can still reach the semi-finals of a major after turning 40, Rosewall having made the semi-finals at the 1977 Australian Open, at 42 years and 68 days old. Federer would need to achieve this feat at the 2024 Australian Open (or beyond) to beat it. The other player to achieve this was the American Pancho Gonzalez at the 1968 French Open, a few days after his 40th birthday.

Federer doesn’t want to break any longevity records just for the sake of breaking them. But if he does, he will be delighted to learn that five players have won at least one Grand Slam match at over 45 years of age. The record is held by Ecuadorian-American Pancho Segura, who was born in 1921 and made it through at the 1970 US Open, then played on grass at Forest Hills, at the grand old age of 49 years and 85 days.

If he wants to match that record, Federer would have to play until the 2031 Australian Open. It doesn’t cost anything to make his fans dream with such a distant prospect. After all, Karlovic has said that he wants to play until a jubilee event when he turns 50.

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