LONDON -- One year and three days ago, Milos Raonic became the first Canadian man to reach a Grand Slam final when he beat an ailing Roger Federer, then 34, in five sets in the semis at Wimbledon. By the end of the match, which saw Federer call for the trainer multiple times to attend to both his right leg and his surgically repaired left knee, journalists were furiously tapping their keyboards, announcing the end of an era.
Then Federer did something even more shocking than lose to a 6-seed at All England: He took time off. After Federer beat Raonic in straight sets in the Wimbledon quarterfinals on Wednesday -- the same day that saw No. 1 seed Andy Murray lose to American giant slayer Sam Querrey and Novak Djokovic retire in the second set against Tomas Berdych, and two days after Rafael Nadal fell in a five-hour marathon to Gilles Muller -- it now seems the only era that might be ending is the one dominated by the omnipresent big four.
"Of course, I'm surprised to see them going out," Federer said after his quarterfinal win. "Novak's not missed any Slams, basically. I don't want to say sooner or later these things unfortunately happen, but he's played a lot of tennis in recent years. For him to be hurt at some stage is only normal. Andy, I hope by playing he didn't make things worse."
With Djokovic citing an elbow injury that has plagued him for more than a year and Murray struggling through hip pain, should the case be made for both players to take much-needed timeouts of their own?
"For me, it worked out," Federer said of his six-month break from competitive tennis. "Sometimes the body and the mind do need a rest. Once you hit 30, you've got to look back and think of how much tennis have I played, how much rest did I give my body over the years, how much training have I done. Did I do enough? Did I overdo it? It's always calibrating the whole thing."
Federer, of course, has had a few years of experience being 30-something. Now 35, he is the oldest player in 40 years to make the semis at Wimbledon. But all the members of the big four have hit the big 3-0: Djokovic and Murray are 30 and Nadal is 31. So one must wonder if they, too, are asking themselves (and their trainers and orthopedic surgeons) the same questions. And if time away from the game is determined to be the smartest course of action for either player to take, will he indeed choose to take it or will he continue to fight through the pain?
For Federer, his willingness to step away from the game to allow his body and mind to repair and recharge could be the difference-maker in extending his career -- more than physical therapy and more than surgery (his arthroscopic knee surgery in February 2016 was the first of his career). Entering Friday's semifinals, the 18-time Grand Slam champ is the only top-five seed remaining in the tournament, and he is four years older than Berdych, the next-oldest semifinalist.
"Last year I had a hard time practicing through the clay-court season," Federer said. "The grass-court season was difficult because of back issues. ... I was more focused on how the knee's behaving rather than how I need to hit my forehand or backhand. This year, I'm just a normal tennis player again where I can focus on tactics. I'm rested. I'm fresh. I'm confident, too."
The proof is in his results. In January, Federer won the Australian Open, the first tournament of his return, and then scored back-to-back wins at Indian Wells and Miami. He then chose to sit out the clay-court season while his peers grinded on from mid-April through June. Those months arguably took their toll on all three players, including Nadal who, while not fighting through an injury like Djokovic and Murray, undoubtedly felt the physical effects of the clay-court slog.
That's not to argue that Nadal should have joined Federer on the sidelines; he's a dirt master who won three tournaments, including the French Open, in Federer's absence during those two months. It's only to say Nadal might consider a rest sometime in the future. Like Murray and Djokovic, Nadal is gone from this tournament, while Federer has yet to drop a set.
"That was the idea [of the break], that the second week of Wimbledon I would feel my best," Federer said. "And I think it's coming along nicely, to be honest."