The narrative arcs at this year's Wimbledon are many. Can Iga Swiatek continue her run? Is this Serena Williams' last dance? Will Rafa Nadal continue his march towards tennis immortality? What of Novak Djokovic who has won three in three on the hallowed grass? Matteo Berrettini? Carlos Alcaraz? Coco Gauff? Ons Jabeur? Simona Halep? Emma Raducanu? The absence of Daniil Medvedev? A lack of ranking points reducing the world's most prestigious tennis event to a glorified two-week expo?
Yet, for all the layer-upon-layer of intrigue over the next two weeks at SW19, one man's absence will be felt. Roger Federer, the undisputed king of that part of South West London. He was a 16-year-old the last time there was no 'Federer. R' in the main draw (1998). Since 1999, when he lost in the first round till 2021, when he lost in the quarterfinals, he has been a Wimbledon constant.
Like strawberries and cream. Like the gloomy skies that would greet viewers on the first Monday. Like unseeded men and women who would become otherworldly serve-and-volleyers for three hours on Manic Monday. Like the dozens of men and women who would be up on Henman Hill (now known as Murray Mount or Raducanu Ridge) cheering for their own. On the second Saturday and Sunday, royalty would be on centre court handing out the prizes. For eight years when the Swiss received those trophies, even the royals knew. While the only title he had next to his name was 'Mr.', he really was the Prince in all but name. 22 Wimbledons. 12 finals. Eight titles. 105 wins. It's likely these numbers won't increase unless his very dodgy knees are pulled together for one final outing.
But portraying the Swiss as a great just because of his numbers is to sensationally miss the whole point of Federer. Eight titles, five of them consecutive, is nice. But the sheer joy of Federer was much more. The music he created with a racquet on a tennis ball and his sneakers on grass for a vast majority of those 105 wins (and, to be honest, most of those 14 losses) hit you different. A joie de vivre. A childish giggle. A wow. Aural pleasure. A sugar high without any of the sugar but all of the temporary energy.
Federer on grass, like Michael Phelps in the water, was appointment viewing. The result was, more often than not, a foregone conclusion. Yet, you never got bored. Sure, sometimes it was a bit like watching an invincible AI machine — like machines, he also didn't sweat on many occasions — take on a rookie. Even then, there was always a joy to be found in the way he went about his craft. The angles he created. The winners. Under pressure first serve aces.
The world never got to see how Leonardo da Vinci perfected the Mona Lisa but Federer on grass was a passable impression. To further stretch this analogy that's been used multiple times by multiple authors, the Italian painter used his brush on a blank canvas to create magic. Federer treated his tennis racquet as a brush and the grass as his own playground to create magic. The end result was almost always Mona Lisa-worthy.
Columnist and former Ajax team manager, David Endt, once noted 'that the seconds of the greats last longer than those of normal people' when he described Dennis Bergkamp's World Cup goal against Argentina in 1998. You watch Federer and you get why the London Summer of 2022 will be so different to each of the 22 previous Summers.
The greatness will be there. But it will last for a shorter time.