It was not easy for Roger Federer to sit with a knee injury during the second half of 2016 after years of graceful excellence and longevity. The Swiss Maestro was hampered by the February surgery, and intermittent play ultimately cost him chances to compete at the French and U.S. Opens.
While Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka seized opportunities to surpass a fading Novak Djokovic, Federer might be wondering about his cruel fate as bystander, as if he could have been the one to win the U.S. Open or recapture the No. 1 ranking.
There were a few promising highlights in 2016, but it became an expanded remix of Federer's nightmarish 2013. Engine failure left the Fed Express stranded on the tracks in the fifth set of the Wimbledon semifinals. There, his season effectively ended when he crumpled on the Centre Court lawns that had once staged seven memorable championships.
There were more "what-ifs" than triumphs in 2016, and the Swiss' aging and injuries are becoming the swan song. Will he compete one more time at something close to his fabled past?
Federer's 2016 tennis season is the first of our weekly offseason superstar profiles that count down six contenders in men's tennis.
Grade: C- or Incomplete
Federer entered 2016 as the No. 3 player in the world and the most competitive threat to Djokovic. Now he finds himself at No. 16, sandwiched between young Lucas Pouille and underachieving Grigor Dimitrov. The best laid plans of new coach Ivan Ljubicic and Federer went askew.
The blueprint originally called for Federer to skip much of the clay-court season so that he could peak at Wimbledon, the Olympics and the U.S. Open. Instead, Federer's season went Down Under with a knee injury at the conclusion of his semifinal run to the Australian Open.
There would be more time off as he delayed a comeback to Indian Wells, got ill before Miami and simply needed to get some match play at Monte Carlo. He got only three matches there and two at Rome a month later before missing the French Open, his first major miss since 1999—when Pete Sampras was No. 1 and half a decade before the Federer Revolution that would predate social media giants Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.
Federer remained optimistic that he could compete at his best during the summer. "The decision was not easy to make, but I took it to ensure I could play the remainder of the season and help to extend the rest of my career," he said in a media statement, via the New York Times. "I remain as motivated and excited as ever."
But he fell short at grass-court tune-up Stuttgart, faithful Halle and beloved Wimbledon, the latter a painful defeat to Milos Raonic two days after pulling off a five-set comeback over Marin Cilic. Ten sets, a bad knee and suspect conditioning were too much to overcome, even for the durable Swiss.
It's incredible that Federer's 21-7 record and two major semifinal appearances were enough to keep him well inside the top 20. His lone appearance in a final, a loss at Brisbane to Raonic to begin the year, was the only time he would compete on Sunday.
Maybe it's best to give Federer the "Incomplete" grade. After February, he never got a chance to compete on his terms. He rehabilitated, but seven tournaments and 28 matches left him with a respectable 2,130 points, a mere pittance for the Artful Roger.
Outlook for 2017
Nobody defeats Father Time, but Federer's passion for tennis and his hopes to turn back the clock give him a fighting chance for more magical moments in 2017. Maybe his knee will be just fine and his legs and body fresh for more wars ahead.
Nobody's going to tell Federer this is the end. It would be easier to tell Kate Upton that she no longer has the looks to model. He's been the center of tennis, voted the most popular player in the world 14 years running, and he often expresses his desire to keep playing for love of the sport.
Federer told Tages Anzeiger (h/t Kamakshi Tandon of Tennis.com) in late October that he is on track to be 100 percent in shape for a January return to the ATP tour. Meanwhile, he plans to play in the International Premier Tennis League exhibition in mid-December.
He has penciled in Australia, Dubai and Indian Wells, premier events that routinely kick off his year. It would be astonishing if he matched or exceeded his semifinal showing at Melbourne, and by then we will know if Federer is ready to compete at his best.
Dubai is a better barometer of his ceiling, and if he adds an eighth title there, he could be looking at other favorites like Halle, Wimbledon and Cincinnati—speedy venues that favor his great service game and quick-strike attacks.
There are several hurdles to overcome, even if Federer's health and timing return to optimum levels. He will have to enter draws as a much lower seed, meaning that he might have to defeat three or four top players to win a major title. The intensity adds up, especially when recovery is more difficult for an aging superstar.
Other young players are rising. Raonic, Kei Nishikori, Cilic and Dominic Thiem can give anyone fits on a given day, and perhaps young stars like Nick Kyrgios and Alexander Zverev will make a leap to block out the likes of Federer, Rafael Nadal and the old guard at the top.
Then there are the strengths and talents of veteran stars Wawrinka, Djokovic and Murray. They were major winners in 2016 and will be motivated to grab more Grand Slam hardware no matter what kind of Federer comeback is brewing. They have long since moved past the awe factor that used to keep them trailing well behind the Fed Express.
No matter what happens in 2017, the sport needs a healthy Federer. His presence, sportsmanship and legendary stature still bring fans into tennis. He's a link from tradition to progress. He means more than the records and titles. He's the symbol and the foundation, the story that everyone is waiting to continue, however it ends.