The All England Club is a special place for Federer, who has won eight titles on its grass courts, and for Murray, who lives nearby and won Olympic gold in 2012.
Roger Federer went first in the Wimbledon interview room on Saturday. Andy Murray soon followed.
"Ah, this is different," Murray said in his baritone, as he settled into a familiar seat in unusual circumstances.
Normally both Federer and Murray pack the place, but not this year as Wimbledon returns after a forced hiatus. Interviews are remote because of the pandemic, and the room was all but empty as they answered questions from the news media via Zoom.
Federer holds the men's record for Wimbledon singles titles, with eight. Murray in 2013 became the first British man in 77 years to win the singles title, and he won it again in 2016.
This Grand Slam tournament, venerable and beautiful, is their special place, the grassy and iconic spot that our minds will probably travel to first when we consider Federer and Murray after they are long retired and hitting tennis balls, or kicking soccer balls, to their grandchildren.
They are both much closer to the end than the beginning of their remarkable careers, and this particular Wimbledon has a valedictory feel, even as both men are resistant to anyone else's timetable. They will draw their own finish lines.
Federer will be 40 in August and is playing on after three knee operations. Murray turned 34 last month and is playing Wimbledon for the first time since 2017, and the first time with an artificial hip joint.
Both have proved their passion for the game beyond any reasonable doubt by enduring beyond even their own expectations.
"Truthfully, I don't think my goal was to play till 39 or 40 or more," Federer said. "It was maybe more like 35, which was already a high number at the time."
His boyhood tennis role models, Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg and Pete Sampras, were all retired by their early 30s. Andre Agassi, the tour's elder statesman when Federer began dominating the tour with panache in the early 2000s, was finished at 36.
"I remember a conversation with Pistol 10 years ago," Federer said, using Sampras' nickname. "He was wondering how much longer I had in the tank."
The surprising answer was at least 10 more years, but the question now is whether Federer still has enough in the tank to win one more Wimbledon or even make one more deep run.
He hinted Saturday that the answer would help determine how much longer he plays, as would the opinion of his wife, Mirka.
"I think I made the most of it on the tour," he said. "I enjoyed my travels, made it fun with Mirka and the family and the team, persevered somehow. No, the goal was not to play until 40. This all mainly came in the last years. I never thought, also, with the last surgeries I've had, I would still be going. Look, I feel I still really love it, enjoy myself. I will see about the results — if they're going to come back. This is why Wimbledon is clearly very important to me right now."
Federer has not won a major singles title since the 2018 Australian Open but he came within one point (and a few inches) of winning Wimbledon in 2019, failing to convert two match points against Novak Djokovic in the final and missing a first serve into the tape that would probably have been an ace on the first of those match points.
But it's a different Wimbledon now after a two-year break that saw the 2020 edition canceled because of the pandemic. The players, accustomed to renting homes near the All England Club, are not allowed to stay in private accommodations this year. All are required to stay in a large hotel near the Thames River, a 45-minute drive from the tournament.
"It does feel totally different than the last 20 years here," said Federer, who is in London with his support team but not his family. "We would arrive with the family — kids would be running everywhere. We organised the grocery shopping, got the house set up and all that stuff."
He sounded wistful but not resentful. "I still feel it's a big privilege that I'm actually able to play Wimbledon," he said. "I'm happy I'm here. I'm not going to be complaining."
But it is, in his own words, "strange to arrive at the hotel."
It must be even stranger for Murray, whose home is in Surrey, not far from the All England Club. But even the British players must enter the bubble.
"I know it's not normal, but it feels somewhat normal now that we're a couple days out from Wimbledon, with all the players around and stuff, practicing, everybody doing media stuff today," Murray said. "Knowing that in a couple of days' time we'll be playing not in front of a full crowd but in front of a lot of people. Just to me anyway, it feels like we're getting closer to more normality. I'm happy about that."
Murray and Federer have shared plenty of tense and emotional moments at the All England Club. In 2012, Murray broke down in tears at the ceremony after losing the singles final to Federer. A few weeks later, Murray was in a very different mood after winning the gold medal over Federer at the London Olympics, where the tennis event was played on the same iconic patch of grass.
Though Federer trails his two biggest rivals — Djokovic and Rafael Nadal — in their head-to-head matchups, he still leads Murray 14-11. They played five times in 2012, but in a sign of how much has changed, they have not played each other on tour since August 2015: Their only match since then was at a charity exhibition in Glasgow in November 2017, when Murray, who was born in Glasgow, donned a Tartan hat and Federer wore a kilt.
Such lighthearted moments on court have been rare of late. They have played and won little in 2021. It has been a rough road, but the journey has been rougher for much longer on Murray, whose body broke down not long after his finest season in 2016, when he finished No. 1.
Murray, now ranked 119th, is not necessarily playing for more major titles. He is playing to practice his craft, use his talent and sink his teeth into competition — and is convinced he can still compete with the best if he can just stay healthy. Federer, still ranked eighth, is more focused on the trophies, which is partly why he withdrew after winning three rounds at the French Open this month. He knew his chances of reaching the finish line were better at Wimbledon than at Roland Garros.
But he lost early on grass in Halle, Germany, at his traditional Wimbledon warm-up tournament, looking disgruntled and off-target with the match on the line against young Canadian Felix Auger-Aliassime. Murray warmed up at Queen's Club and was beaten in the second round by Matteo Berrettini, an Italian with a thunderous serve and forehand.
Long ago, Murray and Federer had a rocky start to their relationship, with Murray, the younger player on the rise, taking exception to some of Federer's post-match comments on his game. But there is genuine warmth between them at this late stage. They are both fathers of four with a taste for country life and a desire to serve the game. Murray has become the more outspoken, often carrying the banner for the women's game as well as the men's, but both are members of the ATP Player Council.
On Friday, they trained together, occupying Court 14 with Centre Court looming nearby. It was, if their memories served, their first practice session together in more than 15 years.
"I'm probably appreciating those things more," Murray said. "When I take a step back from that, as a tennis fan, getting to play with Roger Federer two days before Wimbledon, it's really great. I haven't had the opportunity to do that sort of stuff much over the last few years. I enjoyed it."
So did Federer.
"You can see how comfortable he is on the grass," Federer said. "Clearly, it's just practice. We're trying things, but I hope he can go deep here, have a nice run. Same for me."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
Written by: Christopher Clarey
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