In fact, it is three years since he lost in the third round of the Rome Masters, back in 2016, but it is even longer since he last paid a visit to Paris for the French Open and to Madrid for the Mutua Madrid Open.
But after four years away, Federer has once more made the journey to Madrid to take his place in the draw, prior to a return to Roland Garros for the first time since his quarter-final loss in 2015.
Remarkably, though, for a man who has built a 35-8 record in Madrid, and has claimed three titles, it is many more years since Federer last tasted success in the Spanish capital.
He has won just one match at the Caja Magica since taking the title on the controversial blue clay in 2012, and that was over Radek Stepanek in 2013. And in 2015, Federer lost to Nick Kyrgios in his opener, a memorable encounter that went the Australian’s way, 7-6(12) in the third tie-break of the match
The Swiss star ranks third among active players on clay, behind only Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, according to the ATP’s Performance Index, but he appeared to have called it a day on the red stuff after an aborted return to clay following knee surgery in 2016. With a back injury also playing a painful part in his early exit at the Rome Masters, he withdrew from the French Open, and has not played on clay since—until now.
So what prompted the change of heart after modifying his schedule to reduce the impact on his now-37-year-old body? He put it thus in Dubai:
“I think after missing the French three years ago because of injury, the team understood that I was in the mood to do it again.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, though, he was at pains to play down his chances after so long away. Following his victory at the Miami Masters, he spoke at some length about his expectations:
“I’m not very confident going into this clay court season, I can tell you that, because I didn’t even remember how to slide anymore. You know, I’m taking baby steps at this point.
“Madrid is, like, ‘Let’s see what happens’…Confidence, it’s in no-man’s land. It’s just there if I play well. I have to gain it all again. Start from scratch, really.”
His choice of Madrid, however, must be viewed as a sensible one, even taking account of his recent results there. Federer has enjoyed plenty of success in the city that sits at an altitude of over 600 metres—though four of his six titles came when the tournament was part of the autumn indoor swing.
Nevertheless, the Swiss is 18-4 on the clay of the Caja Magica, with two titles from three finals since 2009—but then he may also have been tempted back by the presence of two particular Spaniards, his direct contemporaries Feliciano Lopez, who is debuting as Tournament Director this year, and David Ferrer, who bids ‘Adios’ after almost two decades on the tour. Madrid will be the much-admired Ferrer’s last event.
As for Federer and Lopez, the two friends have played one another 13 times, every one of them a win to the Swiss, but they have played nowhere more often than in Madrid, nor been so closely matched as they were in their three-hour, three-tie-break thriller in the second round in 2011.
And Lopez has made no secret of how special he regards Federer’s return this year:
“This will be a special edition of the tournament, as Federer will be gracing our courts once more. I was lucky enough to play one of the best matches of my life here against Roger, who has decided to return to the clay this year.”
Lopez, naturally, also had warm words for his departing compatriot:
“Also in 2019, we’ll be giving a well-deserved send-off to legendary player David Ferrer, who wanted to bring his career to an end in front of his home fans. ‘Ferru’ is one of the best players in the history of Spanish tennis, and a person I admire both on and off the court, and he will get the goodbye he deserves with the affection and warmth of his people.”
It promises to be a special week indeed.
Former champions in draw [since switch to clay in 2009]
Nadal (4 titles), Djokovic (2), Federer (2), Alexander Zverev (1 and defending)
Qualifying draw: starts Saturday 4 May, 11.00am
Main draw: R1 begins Sunday 5 May, 11.00am; continues Monday to Friday at 12.00noon and 8.00pm; Saturday 11 May at 1.30pm; Sunday 12 May, doubles final at 3.30pm, singles final not before 6.30pm
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