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Fedexit — Exploring A Final Act For Federer Which Could Be Far Away

Matt Zemek

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Susan Mullane - USA TODAY Sports

I begin with a brief explainer about online sports publishing.

Having edited sports websites — as a site editor (a person in charge of a staff of writers) and as a copy editor (someone who simply polishes the grammar, facts and style of an article without a supervisory role) — I can tell you that writers at websites generally do not apply titles to their own stories. Even when they do, it is still up to the person higher up the food chain — often the site editor, sometimes the executive editor or editor in chief — to approve or amend the title.

On Twitter, I have seen sportswriters explain to readers (at sites other than the ones I worked for) that they didn’t write the titles of the stories. The titles were clickbaity, which created the impression for readers that the story probably was going to be clickbaity. In some cases, the readers never click on the link on Twitter when they see the clickbaity title. In other cases, readers go through the story, understand how reasonable and accurate it is, and wonder to the writer why a mismatched title was chosen. The writer explains: “I didn’t make the title.”

I have the role of site editor for the written half of Tennis With An Accent, as you probably know by now. Saqib Ali is in charge of podcast production and scheduling plus the TWAA Twitter account. Since I am site editor, I am the one who signs off on story titles. In this case, I had to make my own title, since I am the author of the article.

You might wonder why I added “which could be far away” to the end of that title. I offered the explanation above so that you could understand this very point.

I don’t know if Roger Federer’s retirement from tennis is far away or very close at hand. I very firmly believe he will play at least through the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, but that is merely a belief, not a fact, and not something any ironclad sources or indicators point to. It is all guesswork, and I would be lying to you if I said or suggested otherwise.

I added the words “which could be far away” because if I simply titled the piece “Fedexit — Exploring A Final Act For Federer,” the truncated nature of the title would more directly suggest that Federer’s retirement was imminent and/or recommended. Knowing that readers sometimes look at titles of pieces and refuse to click if they think the title is clickbaity, I felt that the words “which could be far away” would remove or at least reduce the idea that Federer’s retirement was imminent or recommended.

Having offered that explanatory and long preamble — which I hope puts a lot of people’s worries at ease — I can now proceed with the central point of this column, which is to gently explore how Federer orchestrates the final act of his career, whenever that moment comes.

Before I begin, let me segue to that topic by noting a satisfying part of my life: watching the TV series Mad Men.

My most psychologically difficult and stressful decade of life was from my late 20s through my late 30s. (I am currently 42.) I had some severe health episodes, followed by extreme weight loss, then a pair of incidents in which I felt that roommates might threaten my life. Those events generated anxiety attacks and ushered in a decade-long period in which, to varying degrees at various moments, certain sights or recollections would trigger the runaway freight train of anxious, fearful thoughts which gained rent space in my head. It took me about 10 years to fully learn how to make peace with those thoughts and not let them take over my mind.

During that period, Mad Men aired. The show’s portrayal of Don Draper, also in his 30s and restless in his search for peace, could not have been more of a window inside my life, even though Don worked in advertising in New York, a realm completely different from my upbringing in Phoenix and my early-adult years in Seattle. I could totally relate to Don not because of the sex or the fancy lifestyle or the advertising world — I could not be more opposite Don in those respects — but in relationship to the fundamental search and struggle for inner knowing, of self-understanding. For eight years, I saw so much of my inner struggle in Don Draper. By the time the show ended — Sunday, May 17, 2015 — I was no longer an anxious person crushed by worry and a fear of my own thoughts.

I credit the show with anchoring my life in a psychologically difficult time.

Because of my devotion to the show — easily my favorite show ever — I asked to write about it for a website. Part of my coverage naturally dealt with the question: How would this show end? It was a constant point of focus in the final few years of the series. This was my review of the series finale.

I share this because, as a part of my personal story as a tennis writer, Roger Federer is the reason I am here. He is the reason many tennis writers have jobs today. He is a central reason many tennis podcasts are sprouting up. He is the reason TV rights to major tournaments are larger than they were in previous years. He is a main engine behind the growth of prize money at the majors. He got this party started in the Golden Era of men’s professional tennis. He inspired Nadal, who in turn inspired Djokovic, creating 15 years of magic dating back to 2003 which will probably become at least 20 years if one assumes Djokovic will still be playing in 2023. (I do think Nole will still be playing then. We’ll see.)

Federer, as the man who kick-started a lot of tennis blogging and podcasting careers, has a level of significance which requires no explanation. The enormity of his career within the story of tennis means that all the details of his exit as an active singles player — the what, the when, the how, and the why — possess endless amounts of intrigue and will leave a profound emotional imprint on a lot of fans.

Yes, if Federer wins a 21st major, or beats Nadal in another major final, or breaks Jimmy Connors’ record of 109 ATP titles, or becomes World No. 1 at any point in the future, those feats will receive a tidal wave of publicity. Yet, if Federer meets none of those milestones or any other especially large ones, the immensity of his legacy is still secure and impossible to fully capture. We will be able to more fully appreciate Fed — and Rafa, and Novak — 15 years from now. Nevertheless, it remains that if Federer doesn’t do something spectacular in what remains of his career (and I make NO predictions on that front, good or bad), the next big moment is the last one: the exit. Fedexit.

Like Mad Men and Don Draper’s last moment on camera, I ask and I wonder: HOW WILL IT END?

It is like a favorite TV show we have. It has occupied a large part of life. People want it to end well.

It is in that sense I explore this question, not to say or suggest it should happen soon.

So what needs to be said? This is a topic too large to fully address in one column. This is why I have spent so much time explaining the column more than addressing the subject matter directly. There is more to come down the line. This is a first exploration, not a comprehensive “one-and-done” effort.

My initial and foremost thought is a question more than a declaration: What does Federer want to get from his retirement — more precisely, how he plans his last act as an active singles player?

I ask this question because Federer’s desires should dictate how he plans the future.

I am not claiming to know what Federer wants — otherwise I would tell you I know how the final act will unfold. I am merely mapping out a framework in which IF Federer wants X instead of Y, he will follow a path marked Z instead of a path marked V.

Let’s show what that means:

If Federer will very simply adhere to the idea that he will play as long as he feel he can win tournaments, his level of form and results in 2019 could have a large impact on what he does in 2020. If he feels he can still win (big) tournaments, he will play the four majors and an event of some kind before those events as a proper warm-up or lead-in. His number of played tournaments would remain low. Given his Laver Cup commitment and the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, it is hard to imagine Fed loading up on tour events if winning the big tournaments is still his top priority.

If Federer thinks he is reaching a point where winning big tournaments seems to slip away as a realistic goal, he could very easily retire. However, this opens up the other basic path for the Swiss in pursuit of Fedexit.

Andrew Burton and plenty of other “Fedologists” (Federer scholars) believe Roger will play Roland Garros once before retirement, probably in his last year on tour. I am inclined to agree, but the Roland Garros question opens up another portal of thought: If Federer would play in Paris one last time as a thank you to French fans, more than as a genuine attempt to win the tournament, it would reflect — at least in isolation — a divergence from the “I play as long as I feel I can win tournaments” philosophy.

What if that divergence is not confined to Roland Garros — whether in 2020, 2021, or beyond that point? I have no idea if such a divergence will occur, but let’s entertain the question. What would Federer’s schedule then look like?

He might then consider a farewell tour in which he visits tour stops he hasn’t been able to make — surely not Vienna, which occupies the same week as Basel, but plenty of others.

Where the Laver Cup is scheduled in 2020 (a non-European location) might have something to do with tour stops Federer visits if 2020 is his last year. If Laver Cup is scheduled for a North American or Asian city, Federer might visit the South American clay tour stops to say goodbyes to a part of the world he has rarely been able to visit within the context of tour life. If Laver Cup does go to South America in 2020, Federer might play Rotterdam again to say goodbye there, and then follow up at the other European clay stops from Monte Carlo to Rome. He would then visit Toronto, a city he hasn’t been able to play in because of the need to rest after Wimbledon. (He of course played Montreal in 2017, but hadn’t previously been there since 2011.)

Federer juggles an enormous amount of obligations in various realms. How he chooses to blend the off-court and on-court aspects of his life and work is a complex equation. In many ways, a final point to note — for now — in this first exploration of “Fedexit” is that Federer will eventually face (in the final year he plays, whenever that year comes) the fundamental tension between competing to win and appearing at tournaments to satisfy and thank fans.

If you know anything about Federer, you know he tries to do both if he possibly can. Playing Rotterdam earlier this year carried the twin benefits of winning a match to become World No. 1 and offering Dutch fans a chance to see him. He won the tournament, satisfying a pair of competing needs and not just one. You can bet that as Federer mulls over how to map out his remaining schedule — whether over two years, or three, or five — he must wrestle with the choice of three basic options: playing to win, playing to give fans a treat, or something in between which tries to do a little of both.

The first option, as discussed above, would not deviate much from his 2017 or 2018 schedules. The second and third options are more unknown. If Federer doesn’t pursue them, this larger drama won’t become more complicated. If he does, though, Federer could create an ending with a plot twist akin to Mad Men.

No, Fedexit might not be near… but after seeing him tweet about 25 years going by on Sunday, following his latest Basel championship, it is obvious he is in a reflective mood. A part of him is recalling memories the way people do when they know they have traveled a very long road. There might be more iconic championship moments on the road which still lies in front of Roger Federer, but we are certainly at a point in time where speculation about the end of that road does not seem misplaced.

If you have ever wondered how your favorite TV show would end, the last act of Roger Federer is certainly a topic you can relate to in the same way that I can relate to Don Draper.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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