But in some ways, watching the eight-time champion drift away, beaten by a younger, faster, man, was a reminder of just how great he has been.
Wednesday's incarnation was Federer at 39, still a great player but human, unable to summon his very best form when he needed it. It was a dose of reality, what you might expect from a man approaching 40 who was only playing his fifth tournament of the year after missing 13 months because of two knee surgeries.
This was what was supposed to happen, just not what he and his legions of fans had hoped -- and perhaps dreamed -- would happen on his return to the scene of his greatest triumphs.
Nearly two decades on from his first Wimbledon win, when he beat the big-serving Australian Mark Philippoussis, and two years on from his last Wimbledon final, when he had two match points against Novak Djokovic, here was Federer back at his favorite hunting ground.
But unlike on so many occasions through the years, his serve didn't get him out of trouble, his fleet of foot was not there, his belief and aura fading fast as Hubert Hurkacz, 15 years younger at 24, took his chance and came away a 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-0 victor.
It was a stark contrast to the years when it seemed Federer could do no wrong at Wimbledon.
Between 2003 and 2007, he was untouchable on the grass, sauntering his way to title after title with a swagger like no other, his serve perfect, his forehand brutal, his aura invincible.
And though things began to change in 2008, when Rafael Nadal denied him in that incredible final, he still won the title the following year and again in 2012, when he beat Andy Murray and ruined the hopes of the home nation once more.
His seemingly effortless movement was matched only by his ability under pressure, and his game was perfect for grass, his opponents blown away in a blur of forehands and flashing backhands, mixed with touch and a superb net game.
Only the emergence of Djokovic as a dominant force stopped him from adding more Wimbledon titles. He lost to the Serb in the final in 2014, 2015 and then, famously, in 2019, when he let two match-point chances slip. In between, Federer did beat Marin Cilic to win the title in 2017, his last at Wimbledon.
Will he be back? It's a question Federer will perhaps not know the answer to for a while yet.
Crucially, he says he will take some time to figure things out, to have some perspective before making any decision. Wimbledon was always the goal, just being here was a success, but then, this is Federer.
"It's a struggle for me," Federer said in a postmatch news conference. "I knew it was going to be hard to be honest, but now I need to talk to the team, take time -- not feel rushed by you guys or anybody -- take time and work out the decision to take. I hope not; the goal is to play on."
He turns 40 next month, an age when tennis players usually have long since hung up their rackets, the grind of the tour, the effort required to stay on top that much harder, recovery between matches more difficult than ever.
But this is Federer, a man who has set so many records in the sport. He was the first to 20 Grand Slam titles, a mark since equaled by Nadal and perhaps soon to be equaled by Novak Djokovic, and his tally of 103 titles is second only to Jimmy Connors' record of 109.
Federer has been written off more times than anyone in his career and, especially after so much success at Wimbledon, it would be surprising if he wanted his last match here to have ended 6-0 -- only the fifth bagel he has ever suffered in his career.
Given his age, Federer is surely one bad injury away from ending his career, and one day not too far into the future, he will probably wake up and decide that enough is enough.
The crowd packed into Centre Court on Wednesday, and those fans who have followed him all over the world for more than two decades, will hope that day is still some time off.