Wimbledon 2019: Grass aficionado Roger Federer goes for gold – and a century of wins
“It’s still going to be the goal to take charge of the point and play on my terms.”
It ruffled a few feathers in the run-up to this year’s Wimbledon Championships: world No2 Rafael Nadal became the No3 seed, giving way to his great rival Roger Federer.
And yet it was nothing new: Wimbledon, in agreement with the ATP, has applied a ‘grass formula’ to the men’s seedings since 2002. Before that, many players were rightly unhappy at the subjective decisions by the then ‘seedings committee’, but now, there is little room for misunderstanding—or surprise—as Federer mused:
“Back in the day, it was tougher. Guys who were seeded became unseeded. So that was a bigger storyline I think than this one. Just happens that Rafa obviously went down, so I think that makes the news. [Smiling] With social media nowadays, they love it.”
In the event, the switch between two and three made little difference. The two rivals, Rafa and Roger, are in the same half—with an equal chance of facing No1 Novak Djokovic in the final.
But there is no getting away from the fact that the transition from clay to grass is a difficult one, nor that the grass season is barely long enough to get a different set of muscles and a different tactical head in place before Wimbledon itself. There is not even a Masters tournament on grass, while there are three of them on clay, and a clear seven weeks of preparation before Roland Garros.
So the players who adapt the fastest, and whose games are designed for the slick, low-bouncing, pacier conditions of grass get a head start.
And few have managed to take the grass in their stride quite as quickly and effectively as Federer. He has never made a secret of his love for the surface nor for Wimbledon, where he won the junior title at the age of 16. Not that his success came immediately: after all, he was brought up on clay and hard courts.
So Federer lost in the first round in three of his first four Wimbledon main draws, but he made his mark nevertheless, with victory over his hero Pete Sampras in the fourth round in 2001, a month before the Swiss man’s 20th birthday.
In 2003, Wimbledon would become his first Major title, the first of a record eight at the All England Club by 2017, plus three more finals.
And this time around, already with 95 match-wins at the tournament, he could become the first player ever to reach 100 wins at any Major. The Swiss has only to reach the semi-finals, and while ‘only’ underplays the scale of the task—particularly for a man approaching his 38th birthday—Federer has seldom failed to do so. One second-round loss in 2013 punctuates 20 years of at least quarter-final finishes—and there have been only three of those.
That statistic ushers in another record for Federer this week. He becomes the first man in the tournament’s history to compete in the singles draw for 21 consecutive years. And the milestones keep coming.
If Federer reaches the semi-finals, he will also break Jimmy Connors’ record of 185 grass-court wins.
And if he wins that ninth golden trophy, he will extend his own all-time record for grass-court titles. His 10th victory in Halle last week took him to 19, so a round score of titles is the target. Sampras and Bill Tilden, with 10 apiece, are a distant second.
For throughout his career, Federer has thrown his full weight into that all-too-brief grass season which, until 2015, was even shorter. There were only two weeks between Roland Garros and Wimbledon, making a brutal transition from clay to grass within a few short days for those who went deep at the French Open. And the scant grass tournaments that were available were all at 250 level, with not a 500 in sight, let alone a Masters.
Come 2015, Halle and Queen’s did get their rightful promotion, and the three-week gap made room for a couple of new 250s for those keen on the green stuff.
Not surprisingly, one of those enthusiasts was Federer. In 2016, after knee surgery, he managed just five clay matches, and bypassed Roland Garros entirely. Yet before he finally aborted the season to rehab his knee and resolve his back problems, he made the semis in Stuttgart, then Halle and finally Wimbledon.
In 2017, he opted out of clay altogether to regenerate his body after a storming start to the season, but played all three grass events again, winning in both Halle and Wimbledon.
Last year, he followed the same path, missed clay, but won Stuttgart, made the final of Halle and the quarters at Wimbledon.
This year, he felt he was fit and rested enough to try the clay again—but not, naturally, at the expense of his beloved grass. He duly won Halle once more.
So to return to our beginning, Federer’s dedication to the grass has borne considerable fruit, in points and titles. In contrast, Nadal has thrown his energy fully into his beloved clay. Since that same year of change, the Spaniard has played—and won—only Stuttgart in 2015, going on to lose in the first round of his last Queen’s appearance a week later.
Both Federer and Nadal, then, made their choices in the full knowledge of the implications come the application of that long-established ‘formula’.
Federer, asked about the rights or wrongs of the switch in seedings, was frank:
“We knew that the system was in place. I guess the system, it rewards you for playing a lot on the grass, well on grass. I guess I benefited from that.”
As for bringing some extra clay fitness to the grass swing for the first time in a while, he said:
“Look, I mean, Halle went well. Practice this week has been going good, too… So far I’m really happy I played the clay court season. I’m happy I was able to adjust again on the grass. I came through Halle, the clay court season, French Open, without any injuries, feeling good. I guess I would be ready for longer rallies… [But] it’s still going to be the goal to take charge of the point and play on my terms.”
Of course both Federer and Nadal, come into The Championships in good form. Federer was pleased to have made the semis in Paris after so long away, and had already picked up the Dubai and Miami titles. Nadal hit a rising curve of form through the clay swing with three semis and then back-to-back titles in Rome and Roland Garros. Indeed their match stats for the season are nigh on identical: 32-4 for Federer, 32-5 for Nadal.
They last met in the semis on Nadal’s favourite court, Philippe Chatrier, and he won. Perhaps, come the final days of Wimbledon, they will meet in another semi, and on Federer’s favourite court. Theirs is a [tennis] story as old as time—and their seedings count for nothing.
Federer records on the line at Wimbledon
· Could become the first man to win 100 matches at a single Major if he reaches the Wimbledon semis
· Could match or exceed Jimmy Connors’ record 185 match-wins on grass: Semis would take Federer to 186
· Could extend his own record number of men’s Wimbledon titles to nine
· Could extend his own record number of Major men’s titles to 21
· Could extend his own all-time men’s record of grass titles to 20
· Has set an all-time record of 21 consecutive appearances in Wimbledon main draw