He will turn 38 in August, which makes it 20 odd years since he took up his first place in the main draw of a Major as a slight and emotional teenager. That Major happened to be the French Open and he lost in the first round to Pat Rafter, a two-time Major champion who was one of the finest exponents of the serve-and-volley game.
This year, Federer returns to the tournament for the first time in four years, playing in a style that has echoes of that Rafter game, in an era where serve and volley tennis has become a much rarer sight, very like the single-handed backhand that both men also use.
It has surprised many—fans and pundits alike—that Federer opted to return to Paris after so long away and with so many years on the clock. It had appeared that clay was a thing of the past—he played just one match at the Rome Masters in 2016 before turning his back on the red stuff. Knee surgery at the start of that year and recurrent back problems seemed to inform a pragmatic schedule to keep the Swiss body and mind in peak condition for a few more years.
The decision paid off in the next season, 2017: He won the Australian Open in the first hard-court swing, then won again on the grass of Wimbledon. He also won three titles from four Masters finals and became the oldest No1 early last year.
Yet a year on, and he’s back. So did the return, perhaps, mark a valediction? The subject has been broached many time since he announced his intention to play Roland Garros, but the first chance was back in Dubai at the start of March—and he was very clear:
“No, I think the decision was based purely on would I like to play the clay again… I think after not playing for two years, also missing the French three years ago because of injury, the team understood that I was in the mood to do it again.
“I did grow up on clay, after all. I felt like my body is strong enough again now to do the surface changes from hard to clay to grass to hard again. In the past I felt different… But that’s not the reason why I’m putting the clay back on. It was purely based on [the fact that] I would just like to play. We can always readjust the schedule accordingly, depending how I play the clay. The calendar is always flexible.”
So flexible, indeed, that he played first Madrid and then, after three matches, added Rome, too, yet he arrives in Paris with just clay five matches under his belt since 2016.
And the maturing body has been standing up to 2019 pretty well: titles in Dubai and the Miami Masters are among 22 match-wins this season. Yet the question of longevity still looms large over his every move.
After all, he arrives for his 18th French Open boasting the longest gap in men’s tennis between his first and last Major, Wimbledon in 2003 to Australia in 2018. He is matched by only Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall in the number of Majors won after turning 30, four of them. And he now extends his own record for the most Majors played: this is his 76th.
But can he realistically add to his assorted records over the next fortnight? Few expect him to win again, 10 years after his only previous victory on Philippe Chatrier, and talking ahead of his opener against Lorenzo Sonego, the 73-ranked Italian, he too had a realistic perspective.
Asked if he thought he could win the tournament, he replied:
“Don’t know. A bit of a question mark for me. Some ways I feel similar to maybe the Australian Open in ’17: A bit of the unknown. I feel like I’m playing good tennis, but is it enough or is it enough against the absolute top guys when it really comes to the crunch? I’m not sure if it’s on my racquet, you know. But I hope I can get myself in that position deep down in the tournament against the top guys.”
“But first I need to get there and I know that’s a challenge in itself. Yes, it’s definitely going to be an exciting tournament mentally to go through.”
But what about the physical side? He did, after all, pull out of his quarter-final match in Rome with a leg strain after a gruelling two-and-a-half-hour battle against Borna Coric.
“There have always been little things going on, like in Rome. But that was also precautionary. I wanted to make sure I was 100 percent going to be able to play the French Open. I just had that doubt, like if I did [play], I couldn’t [be], and I didn’t like that feeling. That’s why I had to take the tough decision.
“Up till now I would say my preparation has gone well. In Madrid, my body reacted well to a surface I haven’t played for many years. So today I took a day off, because my team felt I didn’t have anything more to prove in training.”
He plans to play a short session on Saturday—it is Kids Day at Roland Garros—and then is straight into his first match on the opening day of main-draw play as the bottom halves of the men’s and women’s draws begin.
Also playing on Sunday is the entire Federer eighth, in a section full of quality clay achievers, among them Matteo Berrettini, Diego Schwartzma, Marco Cecchinato. They will be joined on Sunday by Stefanos Tsitsipas, Marin Cilic, Kei Nishikori and David Goffin.
So will Federer become the first man to win five Majors after turning 30? Ask him again in a week’s time, with four best-of-five setters in the body on a surface that tests parts that other surfaces can’t reach.
Realistically, Wimbledon has always suited Federer’s game the best, and that still seems the most likely place to add to his Majors resume. But the very fact that he feels fit and enthusiastic enough to give it a go in Paris speaks volumes for his longevity.
As he put it:
“I think being healthy solves so many issues. Of course, winning solves everything. But being healthy is really key at this stage of my career… I’m very happy how my body has been.”
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
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