For fans of Roger Federer, the last few months have been decidedly odd. In January, the day after losing to Novak Djokovic in the semi-finals of the Australian Open, Federer injured his knee while running a bath for his twin daughters; he had surgery, and missed the next three tournaments. A last-minute stomach bug scuppered his planned comeback in March, and then a back injury caused him to miss another two events in May and June. (One was the French Open: the first Grand Slam he’d skipped in 17 years.) Between injuries, Federer’s form has been patchy: the last final he reached was back in early January. With Wimbledon underway, his body finally seems to be in better shape – he didn’t have too much trouble getting past Guido Pella in the first round yesterday – but he’s played so little it’s hard to be sure.
At 34, of course, Federer is close to being a sporting geriatric, so it’s hardly surprising that he should be showing signs of age. But it still feels deeply unfamiliar. Like all players, Federer has suffered periodic reversals of form before – the last was in 2013 – but he has never been absent for any significant period. This predictability has always been one of the nice things about supporting him – the confidence of knowing that, even when he loses, it won’t be long till you get your next fix. All of a sudden, though, the fixes have become irregular, and like (I suspect) most of his more ardent fans, I’ve been suffering withdrawal symptoms.
Still, the experience has had its upsides. With Federer absent, I’ve started paying more attention to other players – and in particular, to up-and-coming ones. Previously, when new players arrived on the scene, my main concern was whether they posed a threat to Federer (such is the narrowness of the super-fan’s perspective). Lately, though, I’ve become more appreciative. In this shift, I think, lies an element of preparation. Hard though it is for me to acknowledge, the day of Federer’s retirement can’t be far off. And what then? In the past, I’ve always put off asking myself this question, but his recent absences have forced me to confront it. By acting as a kind of dry run for the future, they’ve allowed me (and countless others) to start acclimatising myself to post-Federer life, without it (yet) being a fully-fledged reality.
Of the young players I’ve started watching, two have particularly stood out: the 21-year-old Australian Nick Kyrgios and the 19-year-old German Alexander Zverev. Temperamentally and stylistically, they are opposites of one another. Kyrgios is a 21st-century John McEnroe: brash, disrespectful, technically unorthodox. Like McEnroe, he’s phenomenally talented – and he’s similarly hard to like. Zverev is more contained and cultivated. Despite being exceptionally tall – he’s 6 foot 6 – his movement is fluid and languid. He rarely shows emotion. In many ways, he’s a modern Björn Borg, which lends added appeal to the prospect of a future rivalry with Kyrgios. In a few years’ time, it’s possible to imagine the two of them dominating the men’s game – although the fast-rising young Austrian Dominic Thiem, possessor of a flashy one-handed backhand, may well scupper that idea.
Zverev is a player whose future greatness seems assured: nothing, you sense, is going to stand in his way. Kyrgios’s path is less certain. His anger (unlike McEnroe’s) often comes across as purely destructive; it isn’t clear that it benefits his game. In his short career, he has already proved adept at courting controversy, sometimes with behaviour that’s truly outrageous (the most notorious example being his sledging of Stan Wawrinka last summer, when he informed his Swiss opponent that Thanasi Kokkinakis – another Australian player – had “banged” his girlfriend). At times, he simply comes across as deranged; although perhaps, deep down, he knows what he is doing. In February, when my Federer cold turkey was biting the hardest, I watched him thrash several top ten players on his way to winning an indoor tournament in Marseille. He didn’t seem so unhinged then.
With his basketball swagger and confrontational manner, Kyrgios represents something new in tennis; the game has had its villains before, but it has never seen anyone quite like him. Zverev, by contrast, stands for continuity. He won’t take tennis down a different path. Maybe this suggests that Zverev should be my man: certainly, his game is closer to Federer’s than Kyrgios’s. I genuinely don’t know which of the two will prove my replacement – or indeed, whether either will. One of the joys of fandom is its unpredictability. New allegiances creep up on you, catch you unawares. A player can seem the opposite of everything you admire and cherish, but then, one day, you find yourself watching one of his or her matches, and all of a sudden something goes click. The next day, you wake up, and you realise you’re hooked.