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Roger Federer did make his way to Wimbledon this year, after all — not to compete, mind you, but to take part in a ceremony marking the centenary of Centre Court on Sunday — and declared his intention to try to return in 2023 with a racket in hand.
“Just tried to be successful here and represent the sport well. I hope I did that,” said Federer, who won a men’s-record eight of his 20 Grand Slam event titles at the All England Club and was greeted with a standing ovation. “And I hope I can come back one more time.”
Instead of the mandatory all-white playing uniform, Federer wore a dark suit and tie, his purple Wimbledon member’s badge pinned to a lapel. The Swiss star, who turns 41 on Aug. 8 and has been sidelined for a year because of knee problems, was among more than two dozen winners of singles championships at the grass-court tournament who appeared during a 35-minute tribute to the stadium that opened in 1922.
“I’ve been lucky enough to play a lot of matches on this court. Feels awkward to be here today in a different type of role,” said Federer, who had participated in every Wimbledon since his main-draw debut in 1999. “But it’s great to be here with all the other champions. This court has given me my biggest wins, my biggest losses.”
His last match anywhere came on July 7, 2021, when he lost at Centre Court in the quarterfinals to Hubert Hurkacz 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-0. Soon after, Federer had surgery to repair damage to his meniscus and cartilage in his right knee — his third operation on that knee in a span of 1½ years.
Federer has said he plans to return to tournament action at the Swiss Indoors in October.
“Of course I’ve missed being here. I would have loved to be here,” he told the crowd. “I knew walking out here last year, it was going to be a tough year ahead. Maybe didn’t think it was going to take me this long to come back. But the knee has been rough on me. I didn’t know if I should make the trip, but I’m happy standing right here, right now.”
The whole scene was, in some respects, an infomercial for the Grand Slam event itself.
There were gauzy videos, three in all, quips from co-hosts Sue Barker and John McEnroe, performances by Cliff Richard, who used to help kill time by singing during rain delays (a thing of the past, now that Centre Court and No. 1 Court are outfitted with retractable roofs), and Freya Ridings, who sang the 2017 ballad “Lost Without You” while accompanying herself on a white piano placed on the grass near some front-row seats.
Past champions on hand included some still in the brackets this year, such as Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Simona Halep in singles, and Venus Williams in mixed doubles.
Djokovic joked when it was his turn with the microphone: “Gosh, I feel more nervous than when I’m playing.”
The six-time winner was scheduled to be out there on Centre Court in the fourth round later, which was unusual in its own right: This is the first time in history that the tournament was scheduled as a 14-day event, with play planned for the middle Sunday. Previously, that was set aside as a day off, and only on four occasions — in 1991, 1997, 2004 and 2016 — did a backlog of matches created by too much rain lead organizers to add matches on that Sunday.
Andy Murray, whose 2013 Wimbledon singles trophy was the first for a British man in 77 years, Angelique Kerber and Petra Kvitova were other active players present. And there were big names from yesteryear, of course: Billie Jean King, Rod Laver, Chris Evert, Bjorn Borg — he and McEnroe, fierce rivals in the 1980s, hugged each other — Stefan Edberg and Goran Ivanisevic.
Also listed by the club as attending: the son of Leslie Godfree, who delivered the first serve in the first match at Centre Court in 1922, and the grandson of Algernon Kingscote, Godfree’s opponent that day.
Absent were three of the winningest players in tournament history: Martina Navratilova (who tested positive for COVID-19 and wrote on Twitter she was “gutted” to miss the occasion), Serena Williams and Pete Sampras. Navratilova’s nine singles championships are a Wimbledon record; Williams, who lost in the first round last week, and Sampras, who retired in 2002, each won it seven times.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.