Roger Federer will miss the 2016 World Tour Finals, the first time since 2001 that he will not play in tennis’ fifth major. It’s an historic omission despite the thrill of Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic battling for the No. 1 ranking.
Federer’s transcendent career lifted this year-end extravaganza to new and extraordinary heights, and it did more to make tennis a global, year-round sport. With all of his great records, including six year-end titles, the hidden jewel of the Swiss Maestro’s legacy was how his success and popularity built the WTF that today’s tennis fans tune in to see.
By design, the ATP’s year-end tournament has been rotated several times since it began in 1970, from Tokyo and Shanghai to Europe and the United States. It’s been played on various fast surfaces including hard courts, grass and carpet. It’s been called the Masters Grand Prix (1970-89), ATP Tour World Championships (1990-99), Tennis Masters (2000-08) and ATP World Tour Finals (2009-present).
From 2003-04, the Masters Cup was largely unknown to all but diehard tennis fans, and there were problems with the way the event was hosted in Houston, Texas. Charles Bricker of the Sun Sentinel wrote at the time that there was a lot of instability with the event, ranging from American players getting preferential promotions and European tournament organizers unhappy with the way the top stars were not always healthy and able to attend.
Fortunately, there was Federer. The young Swiss had begun to fulfill his great talent when he won Wimbledon in 2003, and his first Tennis Masters trophy late that year pushed him into 2004 as the most fascinating rising star.
The rest, as they say, was history. Federer coached and played himself to a three-slam year in 2004, destroying the likes of Lleyton Hewitt and Andy Roddick and building his legend. Despite the struggles with Houston losing the Masters Cup to Shanghai, Federer shined with another year-end title. He brought eyeballs to the TV and a wave of popularity as the center of the tennis universe.
Federer continued to dominate 2005, despite one final burst from Marat Safin in winning the Australian Open and the emergence of a Spaniard named Rafael Nadal. The Swiss capped off Wimbledon and U.S. Open titles with all the excitement that the transplanted year-end tournament needed as it moved back to Shanghai.
Unfortunately, injury-problems mounted for nearly all the top stars that were eligible for the elite eight slots for the year-end tournament. Nadal, Roddick and Hewitt withdrew. Andre Agassi and Safin pulled out of round-robin play.
Then there was Federer, who had been hobbled with a right-ankle injury for several weeks preceding Shanghai. There was tremendous promotional pressure for the Swiss to play, as JA Allen of Sports Then and Now wrote in 2010: “The success of the tournament seemed to depend on Federer, allowing the hosts to save face by featuring matches with the World No. 1 in action.”
He thrilled the Chinese fans with four victories and a berth in the final before losing a classic five-set match to David Nalbandian. He had played hurt and without his usual conditioning but had injected memorable performances and helped elevate the future of the WTF.
From 2006-07, Federer reached his career peak with two more three-major seasons, and he won the Tennis Masters Cup in Shanghai. Watching Federer play was must-see action for fans and TV audiences. He was breaking records at a feverish pace, and new social medias created forums for tennis fans.
Shanghai had become big-time tennis in November.
Since 2009, London has hosted the WTF. Federer grabbed two more trophies in 2010-11 even as Nadal and Djokovic became the prime dominators.
Federer’s late-career popularity has remained important while Djokovic and Murray have taken the baton from Federer and Nadal as the ruling bodies of tennis. He was runner-up to Djokovic three of the previous four years, quite simply because he’s the greatest indoor player tennis has ever had.
And so many tennis fans no longer turn away from tennis after late New York summers at the U.S. Open. They have become accustomed to following Federer and company through the Far East and Europe during October and early November, relishing in the WTF’s unique and star-studded fifth major.
It’s a shame that Federer’s knee injuries crippled 2016. We last saw him losing a tough five-set semifinal at Wimbledon, and he had to sit out the Olympics in Brazil and the U.S. Open. Above all, he is missed at the WTF, where his presence still looms.
“There's no question the event in London has been a tremendous success for the ATP," said Chris Kermode, ATP executive and chairman in USA Today Sports two years ago. "Not only is the event hugely important to the ATP from a financial point of view (15-20 percent of ATP operating budget), but it is also critical that it makes the right statement as a showcase for the best of our sport."
The ATP signed on with London through 2018, giving the host city a decade before it perhaps moves on to another eager city. Kermode and the ATP can only cross their fingers that Federer will make it back for a few more years and perhaps cut the ribbon to another successful transition.
Other superstars will be prolific, but they will not fill Federer's shoes in the years to come at the WTF; they will reap the rewards of playing at the tournament that the Swiss Maestro built.