Tennis commentator Catherine Whitaker has questioned whether Serena Williams or Novak Djokovic would have been treated the same as Roger Federer if they had abruptly withdrawn from a grand slam without citing an injury.
Federer stunned the tennis world on Sunday when he announced that he was withdrawing from the French Open in order to rest up in preparation for the grass-court season and Wimbledon.
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The Swiss legend had always said that Wimbledon was his main priority - not the French Open - and he was simply using Roland Garros for much-needed match practice after coming back from two knee surgeries in 2020.
"After two knee operations and more than a year of rehabilitation, it's important that I listen to my body and not rush back into competition," he said.
While a number of tennis greats and fans hit out over Federer's decision, Whitaker believes the backlash would have been much more severe if the likes of Djokovic or Williams had done the same.
"There is an argument that he’s completely earned special consideration,” Whitaker said on The Tennis Podcast.
“But on the other hand I can’t help but feel uncomfortable with it and uncomfortable with what it does for the integrity of the sport and the grand slam events.
“Having one rule for one person and one rule for another person doesn’t seem right but equally, he’s 39-years-old. This is unprecedented.
“This decision would absolutely be treated differently if it were Novak Djokovic making it. It would be received twice as negatively if Novak Djokovic were making it, and 10 times as negatively as if it was Serena Williams making it.
“In terms of how we all assess that decision, we should probably keep that in mind. While he has absolutely earned some special consideration, I also think he gets leeway, too much leeway sometimes, because of how evangelical people feel about him.”
Co-host David Law said it was “unheard of” for a player to withdraw from a grand slam for load management reasons, while Matt Roberts concurred with Whitaker.
“Federer gets away with stuff partly because he’s earned it. In a situation like this, he’s retired from no matches in his career. He’s withdrawn from five tournaments in his very long career,” Roberts said.
“No one is saying that at any time Federer has been bringing into question the integrity of the sport or the tournaments he’s playing. This is a very particular thing at a one-off stage of his career.
“I think we could be in a situation in years to come where Serena perhaps, Djokovic, Nadal perhaps, take a similar decision as they prioritise a different major tournament, for example.
"I think in those instances it would be very important to remember the slack that Federer has been cut for this by most people in this instance.”
Tennis greats divided over Roger Federer withdrawal
Former Australian Open tournament director Paul McNamee was among those to criticise Federer on Twitter, writing: "You're not at a candy store, able to pick and choose which matches you play, as your actions affect others, and the tournament."
John McEnroe said: “Perhaps Roger might have done the magnanimous thing and defaulted match point up (in the third round)", while brother Patrick was also unimpressed.
“I understand it, but I don’t like it. It’s just not a great look to pull out of a tournament in the middle," Patrick McEnroe told the New York Times.
“It’s one thing if you sprain an ankle badly and finish a match on adrenaline. Those things happen. But it’s another thing when you kind of go into a tournament knowing that you probably aren’t going to be able to really finish the tournament."
However Chris Evert said Federer has earned the right "to do whatever he wants".
"He has paid his dues, he's 39, his goal is Wimbledon on the grass, his dream tournament, where the rallies are shorter and it favours mobility and power," she said.
"I'm 100% behind him and it shouldn't be a knock to the tournament. He wants to be the best prepared for Wimbledon."
Fans were also heavily divided, with some left outraged.
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