Roger Federer’s record streak of 65 Majors ends, as back forces French Open withdrawal

Roger Federer withdraws from this year's French Open in Paris after failing to recover from a back injury

It was always a possibility, but that did not diminish the disappointment when Roger Federer announced on Facebook this afternoon that he had been forced to pull out of this year’s French Open.

The 2009 champion, who played for the first time in the main draw of a Grand Slam at Roland Garros in 1999—the first of 17 consecutive years at the tournament—has carried a back injury since his preparation for the Madrid Masters, where he was also forced to withdraw before the tournament began three weeks ago.

He was in doubt for the Rome Masters the following week, too, but arrived early for a number of tentative practice sessions at the Foro Italico before taking to court to win his opener against Alexander Zverev, though was still clearly hampered by his back.

He afterwards admitted: “I was expecting to lose in straight sets today. That was the mindset going in, so to win in straights is actually a really big surprise to me. I played cautious, and I only decided after the warm-up that I was actually going to play. So for me it was a big match on many levels.”

He added: “I’m coming off a brutal last few months, and I’m just happy to be able to play normal tennis to some extent…”

He referred to what has been a taxing season for the 17-time Grand Slam champion. After reaching the final in Brisbane and the semis of the Australian Open, he suffered a knee injury that required his first-ever surgery of any kind. As a result, he had to withdraw from scheduled tournaments in Rotterdam, Dubai and Indian Wells, and after opting into the Miami Masters at the last minute, he was hit by gastric flu: He left Florida without playing a match.

In Monte-Carlo, he finally played for the first time in more than 10 weeks, lost in the quarter-finals, and headed to Madrid—only for what has become a recurrent injury during his career to flare up before playing a match.

Little wonder, perhaps, that he did not have great expectations in Rome, and the No15-ranked and fast-rising Dominic Thiem proved to be too much of a hurdle in his second match.

He was afterwards asked about his plans for the French Open, which lay 10 days’ distant. He was typically frank in his assessment, and while he had been bullish when he met the press in Monte-Carlo about his hopes of playing a good tournament in Paris, those views were noticeably tempered.

“I feel like now time starts ticking more towards Paris. Next 10, 12 days are really going to be important for me to recover, and then make a plan.

“I’m confident and hopeful at the same time. I have only played five matches in the last, what is it, four months now, so clearly don’t want to get too overly excited about what’s ahead, but at the same time I’m a positive thinker, and I believe that I’m going to recover well from Madrid and here.

“I have a lot of hours on the clay already this year—maybe not on match courts but on practice courts. I actually thought I could really do a good result in Paris. Now the last couple of weeks it’s been more difficult.”

And he went on to admit: “But as of now, clearly the way I’m playing right now is never going to be enough for any good run in Paris, and then I also wouldn’t play this way.”

When Federer arrived in Paris yesterday, and the tournament posted a short practice video, the news spread like wildfire across Twitter—stoked by his own post to publicise his French Open Nike kit. But in the end, caution has prevailed. Another post today broke the news.

“I regret to announce that I have made the decision not to play in this year’s French Open. I have been making steady progress with my overall fitness, but I am still not 100 percent, and feel I might be taking an unnecessary risk by playing in this event before I am really ready.

“This decision was not easy to make, but I took it to ensure I could play the remainder of the season and help to extend the rest of my career. I remain as motivated and excited as ever, and my plan is to achieve the highest level of fitness before returning to the ATP World Tour for the upcoming grass court season.

“I am sorry for my fans in Paris but I very much look forward to returning to Roland Garros in 2017.”

He was surely tempted to try playing the first round, for that would have extended Federer’s extraordinary record of 65 consecutive Grand Slam appearances, 67 in all. In Paris alone, he has won more than 80 percent of his matches, reached the final five times—though winning just the once—and has fallen short of the quarter-finals only once since 2004, a Round 4 loss in 2014: That’s a 65-16 win-loss record.

For some, or for one in particular, this cloud may have a silver lining. Rafael Nadal, nine-time Roland Garros champion, will now be seeded No4 and thus avoid world No1 Novak Djokovic, who beat him in the quarters in Rome, and No2 Andy Murray, who beat him in Madrid, before the semi-finals.

But Federer’s focus now, as mentioned in his announcement, will turn to his favourite surface, grass, where this year he has added an extra tournament to his schedule: the Stuttgart 250. He then heads to the defence of his Halle title and on to Wimbledon, where he has enjoyed more Grand Slam success than any other: seven titles from 10 finals—including a runner-up place last year to Djokovic.

With just 11 wins from 15 matches to his name this year as the tour heads towards the half-way stage, Federer will certainly want to regain his winning ways during that all-too-brief grass swing.

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