In case it had gone unnoticed in Miami, they proclaimed, Roger Federer “will skip the clay court season and French Open”, “renounces French Open and clay season”, “is stunned at Miami, to lose No1 ranking”. And on they went.
Two, though, stood out: Not a lot of answers for Federer’s failures during crunch time, and Can he return?
In the event, neither offered up quite as gloomy a prognosis as their headers suggested, but they did tap into much of this weekend’s exchanges.
And certainly, Federer’s loss to a man ranked 175, who had used a wild-card into qualifying to reach Miami’s second round, was an upset. The Swiss star’s records, reputation, and No1 ranking were enough to support that view.
But there were also some answers.
First, there had to be credit to the hugely-talented 21-year-old Thanasi Kokkinakis who, had he not suffered almost two years of injuries—including shoulder surgery—would most likely be ranked alongside his contemporaries Nick Kyrgios and Borna Coric. He was certainly bracketed with those juniors when they contested the finals of the Australian and US Opens.
As a teenager in 2015, he made the fourth round at Indian Wells, the third round of Roland Garros, and a ranking of 69. Last year, despite managing just seven tournaments amid more injury woes, he beat Milos Raonic and Tomas Berdcyh, along with highly-regarded NextGen players, Frances Tiafoe and Taylor Fritz, and he reached the final in Los Cabos. It also took Juan Martin del Potro and Kei Nishikori four sets to beat him at Roland Garros and Wimbledon.
In short, Kokkinakis has never been a soft touch on a tennis court, and has the big game, strong movement, and smart head to test the best when he is fit. And in Miami, he was. He also happened to bring with him some experience of Federer’s game. He said:
“He’s been super nice to me. Invited me to Dubai a couple of times to train. He’s been real supportive. Anything he thinks in my game, how it should operate, I’ve been all ears listening to him.”
That, then, was one side of the equation. But weighing even more heavily on the Federer side were many elements.
The Swiss surprised even himself at the speed and level of his success on returning from a six-month layoff following knee surgery last January: the Australian Open, his first Major victory since 2012; the Sunshine Double in Indian Wells and Miami for the first time since 2006; a record eighth Wimbledon; and a third Shanghai Masters. He won a tour-leading seven titles, and rose from 17 to No2. Even with his decision to miss the entire clay swing, he notched up 52-5 for the year, a season in which he turned 36.
So to come back in 2018 and try to defend all those wins was a task and a half. Yet he began even better than in 2017, this time winning the Hopman Cup unbeaten—four singles and four doubles matches—and the Australian Open. And that led to a sudden departure from his usual spring schedule. He took a last-minute wild card into Rotterdam, for all at once, he could regain the No1 ranking with just three match-wins.
In the Dutch port, he talked at length about the decision.
“I always said I would only look at the rankings once the Australian Open was over, and I didn’t think honestly I would win Australia again. I thought that by not winning the World Tour Finals [he lost in the semis] that the No1 was never going to happen again.
“But I had the flexibility in February. With Dubai I wasn’t sure what I was going to do, and I always thought I was going to Switzerland in the mountains… So when the Australian was over, I looked at all the different options, and I just thought I’d love to go play Rotterdam and give it a go there.”
It meant a quick turnaround, a fortnight in which to travel from Australia’s summer to the chill of Rotterdam and its indoor courts. It worked, too: five match wins, a 97th title, and a return to No1 for the first time in five and a half years.
He then headed home, before flying to Monte-Carlo for the Laureus Awards, and thence his latest Match for Africa charity match in San Jose en route to Indian Wells.
Expectations grew of a record opening run of wins, and sure enough, he hit 17, a start to a season matched only by his 24-year-old self in 2006. However by his semi against Coric and then in his final loss to del Potro, the effort began to show.
An unshaven Federer admitted afterwards:
“I think staying positive through the tough moments is really key. Because you’re always going to go through ups and downs in your career, or as a person. Not every day is sun shining. It’s sometimes a bit of a struggle… and obviously, there is not too much time to dwell on it.”
That was an understatement. Early the following morning, he was on a plane to Chicago for a day full of media work to launch this year’s Laver Cup. But he insisted:
“When it’s fun, it’s not a drag.” And he has been wedded to, and thrown much energy into, the Laver Cup since long before its launch last September in Prague.
But the Indian Wells/Miami double is one of the most arduous tests in tennis, and this time around, he had another year on the clock, another seven titles in the legs, and that record opening run under his feet. At the same stage 12 months ago, he had played just two matches in Dubai compared with five in Rotterdam—and no Match for Africa or Laureus Awards.
That, then, was the physical baggage he brought to Miami, and after a crisp opening set that took advantage of Kokkinakis’s nervy start, Federer lost a step, sprayed errors, looked weary.
Had he burned the candle at both ends? Very possibly. Had departing from his tried-and-tested spring schedule thrown a spanner into the well-oiled Federer engine? Perhaps.
But maybe the emotional highs of 2018 also played their part. He wept in Melbourne and again in Rotterdam after two achievements that he had thought beyond him. His demeanour and words after his Miami loss certainly suggested mental tiredness:
“I wasn’t feeling good… wrong decision-making… I’m trying to figure things out…”
And part of ‘figuring out’ is to go away to regroup: “You really take a break, get away from it all. When you come back to the practice court to work, you do it at 100 percent.”
No clay season, then, for the second year. After all, it proved to be a winning strategy in 2017, and when extending his career on the tour is Federer’s biggest priority—more even than ranking and titles—it makes sense not to put a well-worn body through the particular rigours of switching to clay.
Indeed, it is an approach that has helped other prolific champions: Jimmy Connors played Australia only twice compared with 22 appearances at the US Open—and missed 10 French Opens over the same span. John McEnroe played Australia only five times and missed Roland Garros a number of times throughout his career. Guillermo Vilas played a short span of Australian Opens, and only three Wimbledons in the last decade of his career. It has been a strategy that underpins longevity at a high level.
The proof is already there for Federer, too. He holds the record for more consecutive Majors than anyone, 65, and the most overall, 72, and has fallen short of the quarter-finals only four times since 2004. Which has resulted in more Major matches—and wins—than anyone else.
He has surely earned the right to ease the load just a little, then, as he heads towards his 37th birthday. It is certainly a view endorsed by the ATP tour. Players in the top 30 are committed to playing all the Masters and four 500s in a season—until they fulfil certain criteria: 600 matches, 12 years of service, and 30 years of age. The regulations add: “If all three conditions are met, then the player has a complete exemption from ATP Masters commitment.”
So Federer has been exempt for years: He continues to play for the love of it, and if more records come, so be it.
He was asked about his plans for clay this year before he reclaimed No1 in Rotterdam.
“Still up in the air, but maybe playing more during this part of the season, it’s going to be hard for me to play a really robust clay court season… I have to see how it goes. Really happy right now to be healthy and happy to be playing. I think I should be playing when I feel that way and not when I’m not feeling 100 percent. That’s going to be the key.”
And for the many fans of tennis who want this man around for a while longer, it has to be the right approach.
He has said many times that once his wife, his children, or himself becomes tired of life on the tour, he will walk away.
So if the price of detours that keep him fresh in mind as well as body—to Rotterdam, to Laver Cup, or to a Federer Foundation project in Zambia, which he plans next month—turns out to be the clay swing, then maybe it is a price worth paying.
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