As the top players kick off their U.S. Open Series campaigns in Montreal this week, one name is notably missing from the draw: Roger Federer.
Federer, who won the Rogers Cup in 2004 and 2006, withdrew from the tournament for personal reasons, but most have speculated that his absence has to do with the back injury he's been struggling with this year.
This marks the first time Federer has missed this Masters event in a non-Olympic summer since 2005. It is yet another perplexing chapter in what's been quite the out-of-the-ordinary summer for the Swiss great.
After his shocking second-round loss to Sergiy Stakhovsky at Wimbledon, Federer was left searching for answers. While a run to the Wimbledon title had quieted doubters in 2012, there was simply nowhere to hide after this year's early exit.
And so, Federer did what he hasn't had to do many times in his storied career: He went back to the drawing board.
Soon after Wimbledon, he announced that he was going to play Hamburg and Gstaad, two small clay-court events between Wimbledon and the U.S. Open Series. This was the first time he'd played that time of the year in nearly a decade.
This seemed like a good sign at first—Federer felt healthy enough to add tournaments to his schedule and motivated enough to try to regain his top-four ranking, which had slipped away from him after Wimbledon.
But then he dropped an even bigger bomb—he was going to be playing with a new racket.
For years, Federer had stubbornly and emphatically held onto his 90-inch racket frame, despite the fact that most of his contemporaries were playing with a much larger surface area. But finally, he was ready to join the century with a 98-inch frame.
Things started out okay in Hamburg, as he shook off the rust on his way to the semis. Though, as expected, there was an adjustment period, the bigger racket seemed to add power to his shots and help him be more aggressive on returns.
But then, as has been a theme in 2013, his body got in the way, and his back acted up in a semifinal loss to No. 114 Federico Delbonis. The next week, he tried to play in front of his home country crowd in Gstaad, but was still clearly hampered and lost in straight sets to No. 55 Daniel Brands.
When he withdrew from Montreal, panic amongst his fans reached a fever pitch. Federer is certainly not one to withdraw from an event lightly.
However, earlier this week, as the eyes of the tennis community were up north, Federer surfaced in Cincinnati, the home of next week's Masters event, with his new racket by his side and a smile on his face. He was already on the practice courts:
Even Thursday on his 32nd birthday, he was out there grinding away and getting ready for competition. He might not be in Montreal competing, but he's certainly not far away from the tennis beat.
Still, there are a lot of questions in the air, and rightfully so. Nobody knows how his back will hold up, whether the racket will help in the long run or if he can still push Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray like he used to.
Sure, he was No. 1 in the world just a year ago, but in tennis, a year might as well be a lifetime.
While everyone waits for a verdict on Federer, it's important to remember, the verdict on his career has already been given. With a record-setting 17 major titles, he is already one of the best ever to play, and nothing that happens in his later years can diminish that in any way.
If anything, the fact he still loves the game enough to try new things at his age adds to his legacy of greatness.
It's a strange feeling to be in a tennis world where Federer can't be counted on week-in and week-out, but it's also rather inspiring to watch him make adjustments and keep trying as he edges past his prime.
One thing is for certain as we watch this week's tennis action unfold: The Rogers Cup just isn't the same without Roger.
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