Roger Federer returns to competition, and admits: ‘It’s nice to be here’

Roger Federer got off to a winning start on his Mercedes Cup debut on Thursday as he made his comeback from a back injury injury

When Roger Federer released a rather different looking schedule for 2016 back in December, it came with the obligatory ‘subject to change’ footnote.

It already had clues to a change in his priorities for a year that has the Olympics shoehorned into August.

For a start, he had added the new turf-based Stuttgart to the grass season. When this perhaps foolhardy journalist asked about that decision to play back-to-back events in Stuttgart, Halle and Wimbledon, with Toronto and Rio following so hard on their heels, his first priority became very clear:

“I thought about it. So obviously I’m confident about my scheduling, especially at 34 years old… I know exactly what I’m doing. I was in the mood to play more grass-court tennis. If I feel that way, that’s what I should be doing. [Rio] is not my No1 goal necessarily. I have other goals. Wimbledon is a big one.”

But that schedule looked different in other ways: He committed to nothing between Indian Wells in March and Roland Garros in late May. And while the Miami Masters has often been trimmed of late, where were the three clay Masters?

He later explained it thus: He may play one of them, perhaps more, but had not decided which, and in fairness to fans, he did not want to promise and then not deliver.

But in the event, ‘subject to change’ took on a whole new meaning, for Federer would be unable to deliver even the schedule he had promised.

His problems almost began at the very first event. He arrived for his Brisbane title defence at the latest possible time after picking up flu from his family, and sniffled his way to a runner-up finish.

He bounced back at the Australian Open, coming through a tricky draw to the semis, where he took world No1 and defending champion Novak Djokovic to four sets.

Then came a bolt from the blue. The man who could count on the fingers of one hand the number of withdrawals during a career spanning 18 years, picked up a knee injury away from the tennis court that required surgery for the first time in his entire life. And Rotterdam, Dubai and Indian Wells went out the window, along with 1,100 ranking points from the previous year.

No matter, he would play Miami. But once there, he had to pull out with a gastric virus.

There was still plenty of room for manoeuvre with the switch to clay, and sure enough, he used Monte-Carlo as the first chance to play in almost 10 weeks. His knee, he affirmed, was fine, but he lost in the quarters.

So he added the Madrid Masters, turned up, but played not a ball. A back problem that has dogged him over the years—the Masters Cup in 2008, the summer of 2013, the final of the World Tour Finals in 2014—flared up in practice and he withdrew.

He still had Rome, but watching his increasingly painful movement as he edged towards a loss in his second match, he perhaps should have stayed away. For in the end, he was forced to make the biggest change to his schedule soon after: withdrawal from the French Open and the end of 65 consecutive Grand Slam appearances.

Thus far, then, at the halfway stage of the year, with two of the four Majors done and dusted and five of the nine Masters tournaments in his rear-view mirror, he has played just 15 matches, winning 11 of them. Since the end of January, he has played only five and won three.

Little wonder, amid the plentiful interviews he has undertaken in Stuttgart this week, that Federer has interspersed upbeat remarks with more reflective ones.

Talking to Eurosport, he commented on that unbroken stretch of Grand Slams, and how tough it had been to draw a line at 65.

“I was pretty fragile three weeks ago. That was the reason I didn’t play in Paris.

“Decision itself was slightly tough when it was official because I’d been playing that tournament ever since 98 in the Juniors. You look back and like, ‘What, this year I’m not playing? How’s that possible?’ Because I could have kind of played, but with big chances on my health, and I was just not prepared to do that at my age. I have to be careful.”

Federer will turn 35 during the Rio Olympics in August, yet he has not missed playing a Grand Slam in 17 years, and was preparing to play his 18th French Open.

He spoke in a more positive vein to the Stuttgart media before of his first match back.

“It’s been a difficult year for me, to put it mildly. [But] it was much better for me to look forward to the rest of the season, rest of my life, really. I didn’t want to have setback after setback and injure myself maybe further. In hindsight, that was definitely the right decision.

“[Now] I feel much better again. It’s been a good last three weeks. No setbacks. My back’s good again. I feel much stronger… I was a little sad, of course, but I got back on my feet quickly.

“Now, of course I’m super excited to be playing another tournament finally. It’s been a tough year so it’s nice to be here.”

For the first time since Australia, then, Federer is back where he is most happy: Not just on a tennis court but on a grass tennis court, And at long last he is back on schedule. Not that he has high expectation after so long away.

“It will be a good week when I get on the court and play a match. A great week would be the semi-finals and a dream run would be to win. Crazier things have happened!”

The elements were against Federer and the tournament for his first match against the impressive 6ft4in teenager, Taylor Fritz, who was just three years old when Federer won his first title.

Federer broke Fritz for a 4-3 lead before rain halted play on Wednesday, but he took the set, 6-4, on their return after fending off a break point.

But there was no doubting the rust amid the diamonds in Federer’s game: A few touch-perfect volley winners were leavened by many over-hit forehands, and the fine serving of the first set dropped to just 54 percent in the second, while Fritz played with calm confidence and some devastating pace and penetration.

Both fell on the sappy grass during the match, but Fritz broke for the second set, 7-5. Federer twice escaped a break by the skin of his teeth in the third set, too, but then pounced on a couple of errors from Fritz to break in ninth game and, in the more familiar guise of 15-time grass court titlist, served out with ease, 6-4.

Federer admitted: “It wasn’t easy… He served well and I was a little bit cautious, unsure of how to move and questioning my defence. These are the things I will need to iron out. [But] I can take a lot of confidence out of this match. I need to improve a few things, but I served big and I was able to handle three sets over two days, and find some energy at the end of the match.”

The last time Federer played, in Rome, he lost to the newest young player to break into the top 10 and, if the Swiss beats Florian Mayer in the next match, he will face Thiem again—ironically the only other top-10 player in the field, but the Austrian’s surge up the rankings arrived too late for the Stuttgart seedings.

Whether or not Federer’s game is sharp enough to win this title is open to debate, but his eyes are more set on a ninth Halle title and, in his perfect world, an eighth Wimbledon. Meanwhile, he can revel in another milestone.

Today’s win took him level in second place with Ivan Lendl for match-wins in the Open era, at 1,071. In any other year, he would be closing on 1,100—but for now, he will settle simply for ‘being here’.

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