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Roger Federer must confront his tennis mortality

You always sort of assumed he’d play forever.

Sure, you knew Roger Federer actually couldn’t do that — he’d have to retire from tennis at some point — but when he’d talk about his career and say, before the London Olympics, that he’d like to play until the Rio Olympics, that milestone felt like a lifetime away. By then Federer would be turning 35 and probably ready to hang up his Nikes. It felt like a logical end point.

Now, all of a sudden, the Rio Olympics are six months away and Federer, who is playing the best tennis any man over 30 has ever played, seems likely to have to move that retirement carrot once again. Or will he? For the first time in his career, The Swiss maestro went under the knife, for arthroscopic knee surgery to repair a torn meniscus that apparently occurred the day after his Australian Open semifinal loss to Novak Djokovic. For a 34-year-old whose biggest brush with injuries has been some nagging back pain, it’s a wake-up call on his tennis mortality.

One of the most impressive parts of Federer’s career has been his consistency — not in his run of major finals, semifinals and quarterfinals (though those are nice, too), but in merely showing up. He’s played 65 consecutive Grand Slams, dating back to the 2000 Australian Open. (Yes, Roger Federer had played every Grand Slam this century.) Watching him gracefully slide around the hard courts of Melbourne a few weeks ago, you got the feeling he could do what he did four years ago — set playing in the next Olympics (Tokyo in 2020) as a goal, and do so with ease.

If Jimmy Connors could make a U.S. Open run at 40, then Federer — in an era where recovery, training and nutrition has transformed every sport — should be able to do so as well, especially given the fact that the young challengers on the horizon always seem to stay there. With the injury, is that still in the cards?

That question will be the focus of the next three months of the tennis calendar, a stretch that was going to be light anyway because of the French-Wimbledon-Olympics-U.S. Open quartet that would start in late-May and culminate in early September — eight weeks of major play in a 16-week span.

On one hand, why couldn’t Federer come back and play at a high level? Thousands of athletes have had their knee scoped after a torn meniscus and come back fine, if not better. But those athletes weren’t 34-year-old tennis players, a species as rare as a Philadelphia Eagle with a Super Bowl ring. Every athlete uses their knees to cut, jump, pivot and lunge, but it’s the tennis player who has to do so on various surfaces, sliding around clay, grass and hard courts for three hours at a stretch every other day for eight of 16 weeks.

As Federer surely knows, the end can come so quickly. In 2013, Peyton Manning had one of the greatest seasons in NFL history. By 2015, despite his Super Bowl ring, he could barely throw a 20-yard out pattern.

Federer now is the same age Peyton was when got his neck surgeries, which are a far more involved and dangerous procedure, to be sure. Of course, Manning plays 16 regular-season games per year, while Federer is out for 70-plus matches. (Then again, Federer doesn’t have 270-pound linebackers who run a 4.5 trying to send him into tomorrow either. So, tomato/tom-ah-to, I guess.)

A better example is his tennis contemporary, Serena Williams, who’s also defying the odds and history of tennis by playing at such a high level so deep into her 30s. Whereas Federer’s body has been pristine for his career, you can point to most places on Serena’s body and find an old battle wound.

The main one was a partial tear in the mid-portion of the quadriceps tendon, all the way back in 2003. Since then there have been toe surgeries, treatment for pulmonary embolism, stress fractures, foot injuries and various knee injuries, including the one that knocked her out of Australian Open tune-ups but didn’t appear to slow her down in the major last month, despite her three-set finals loss to Angelique Kerber.

But Serena also hasn’t played as much, as consistently or as hard as Federer has over the past 16 years. She’s famous for her other interests and keeping her schedule relatively light through what should have been her prime last decade — a move that’s actually extended her prime into the unchartered territory she’s in now.

In recent years, it just seemed like The Fed would be the same, competing deep into Grand Slams — a 34-year-old man playing like he was 24, thanks to conditioning, training and the skill (or dumb luck) of never getting injured. As long as he stayed healthy, why couldn’t he keep going?

Now one part is out of that equation. Can Federer adjust? In 2013, when it appeared the game was passing him by, Federer tinkered with changes but nothing stuck. Then, before the 2014 season he started playing with a different, larger racquet and brought in his idol Stefan Edberg to serve as a coach. Both moves helped Federer to stellar years over the past two seasons, including 11 tournament wins (he has one in 2013) and an impressive 6-8 mark over the world’s best player, Novak Djokovic, who’s six years his junior. (As comparison, Andy Murray is 1-11 against Djokovic over the same span.)

No one, not even Roger Federer, knows how he’ll come back from his recent surgery. Doctors are optimistic, and Federer sounds it, too. But those Rio Olympics, once so small in the distance, are here. Will they be the end point Federer predicted, or just another milestone in the greatest career tennis has ever seen?

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