He ambled to practice in the warm mid-morning, waving a cheery “Gute Morgen” to the few faces he recognised. On the way back, two hours later, there were rather more hopeful fans hovering. And yes, he stopped, signed shirts, posed for photos, even took the selfies himself when asked. Twenty of them? Probably 30, and countless autographs.
The easy ways and slower pace of this tournament set in the green and wooded countryside of Westfalen even rub off on his team. They exchange greetings, patient smiles, the occasional joke with the Federer admirers: They have seen it all before. The Swiss man’s hair may be short—so short that he has a wide band of pale skin above his collar—but there is nothing world-weary about his looks and ways. Even with his 36th birthday on the horizon, his 20th year on the pro tour not far behind, and his 18th Grand Slam won just five months ago, he is a man happy in his work.
About six hours later, and it was time to complete his press obligations, and the contentment remained. This place, he said, “feels like I’m coming home.”
It is small wonder, of course. Fourteen times he has played here, the first in 2000, when he had yet to win the first of his 91 titles. He lost to Michael Chang, and the next year he lost to Pat Rafter: names from a different era in tennis years.
The first of eight Halle titles came in 2003, and with it the first of 29 back-to-back match-wins before he was denied in the final in 2010 by Lleyton Hewitt.
As he arrives this time, though, the picture is a little different. Last year Federer reached the semis, but was in far from tip-top shape after knee surgery, and then back problems, through the preceding months. At Wimbledon, he would make it to the semis, but then would draw a line under the season. Ahead of his Halle campaign, he lifted the lid on the chief reason for that decision.
“Naturally Wimbledon is the big goal of this season right now, but it has been ever since I lost the semi-finals against Raonic last year. My knee wasn’t well, so my goal was to be 100 percent healthy again by this Wimbledon.
“But for me to be mentally, game-wise and physically ready, I need to play matches and feel well. That’s why this week is very important. The good thing is, I’m not injured. Nothing is hurting and I can give it full throttle. That’s exactly how I want to feel a few weeks before Wimbledon.”
The only way to regain his physical peak was long-term rest and recuperation—and he has since talked too of the importance during that long break of mental rejuvenation. And the decision proved to be spot on: Witness his blistering return to win titles in Australia, Indian Wells and Miami.
It was a glorious but exhausting comeback, and it prompted him to do something else he had never done before: deliberately bypass the entire clay season, including Roland Garros, to ensure that same freshness of mind and body for his favourite season: grass.
What had been the thinking process behind the decision to withdraw from the tour for 10 weeks? He had, after all, promptly lost his first match back last week in Stuttgart. He thought for a moment.
“I mean a comeback is never simple, especially on grass where margins are so slim, and a serve or passing shot or a return can sometimes determine the outcome of a match. And that’s what it ended up being against Tommy [Haas], even though I feel when I was leading a set and a break I should somehow find a way home.
“But considering how well I felt going into Paris, it was surprisingly easy in the end, the decision, and once I took it, I was happy that I never had any regrets watching the French Open, or following the results. I never felt like ‘If only I was part of the tournament’.
“For me, when the decision was made, I was looking ahead at the grass court season, at the practices, at time with friends and family at home, and the organisation for Stuttgart and Halle and Wimbledon.”
He went on to talk of his mind-set: He has often described himself as a ‘glass half full’ individual, and here it was again, albeit framed in a different way.
“I think I’m very good at blending it out, you know, once the decision is taken. Like last year, not playing any more after Wimbledon, I felt like that also was a decision I took, and from then on, you move on.”
But is this a sign of things to come, a sign that he may now permanently draw his line in the clay if things go well?
“I don’t think it matters so much on the results. It’s a decision based on my health, and how I feel going into each and every season. The decision about the French Open was taken within a couple of days, this was not something I saw myself doing weeks and months ahead. The schedule was to play Paris, and all of a sudden, I just felt in the team and within me that I didn’t feel comfortable doing it, and I didn’t want to make any compromises for the big goal—the grass season, Wimbledon, the US Open, and beyond.
“I felt like the French Open was potentially going to have a negative effect on what was to come. Maybe it was also going to be helpful, but I felt there was more risk that it was going the other way than not, and that’s why I decided, based on health, that I was going to skip. But this is not a trend. I don’t know what the future holds. It is just a one-off decision in my opinion.”
As the leading player of his generation on grass—indeed he has the all-time men’s record for titles and match-wins on grass—surely he regrets just a little that the opportunities for titles have been so few and far between in his career. Only two years ago did the tour add a third week between Roland Garros and Wimbledon to allow a little more time on the green stuff. But Federer is not a man for regrets.
“Not really. It is what it is. I grew up on clay and the indoors really, so those are my home surfaces if you like, although most success may have come on grass or hard courts, which are not my natural surface to be honest.
“It’s nice to have an extra week but I don’t regret for a second that I didn’t have more grass courts or wasn’t born in a year when there were three Grand Slams on grass, unlike the one [we have] now. It is what it is. I enjoy the challenge always, of the surface change, and the little time we have between Roland Garros and Halle, then moving into Wimbledon. So it’s all good.”
It may go down as Federer’s watchword. However long he continues to ply his elegant trade, no matter how few months in a season he decides to play, nor how many selfies are yet to be sought and given, he will see it all as good.
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