For the second straight campaign, Roger Federer has decided to skip the European clay swing altogether.
The narrative of the Swiss star playing on dirt was gaining momentum, as the upper echelon of the ATP is currently on the DL. However, following his upset at the hands of Thanasi Kokkinakis in the round of 64 at the Miami Open, Federer confirmed his leave of absence from the tour until the Mercedes Cup (Stuttgart, June 11-17).
As far as I am concerned, the 20-time Grand Slam champion took a smart decision. His body language in his matches against Borna Coric, Juan Martin del Potro, and Kokkinakis was worrisome. He even looked out of sorts sometimes, losing his oft-revered demeanor versus Delpo.
The Swiss stayed busy since the Australian Open
Chasing the No. 1 ranking definitely took a toll on his body, but mental fatigue was arguably a bigger issue in my opinion. Let’s push the rewind button on Federer’s hectic schedule since the announcement of his Rotterdam wild card, on February 7.
Sure, Federer seemingly cruised to the title in Holland. Nevertheless, he messed up with his sleeping schedule in order to cheer for his Swiss compatriots competing in the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. Remember when Nick Kyrgios lost to Elias Ymer in Barcelona after staying up all night to watch the Boston Celtics in the NBA playoffs? Federer got away with a far from ideal preparation.
In the ensuing weeks, the Basel native could not catch a break. He flew to Monaco to receive his record-setting fifth Laureus World Sport Award on February 27. On March 6, Federer teamed up with Bill Gates in his Match for Africa charity event in the Bay Area. On March 11, he began his title defense at Indian Wells. The final versus Delpo took place on March 18. One would guess he would rest up before Miami, but Roger Federer the businessman had another commitment in between the two Masters events. On Monday, March 19, he caught a plane to Chicago to launch the 2018 Laver Cup. No wonder he was gassed, unable to find an extra gear against Kokkinakis.
At 36 years of age, injury prevention is crucial
While rest is needed, there are other factors behind the choice not to play on clay.
His trainer Pierre Paganini told The New York Times that, contrary to public belief, clay court tennis provokes a lot of vibration on the joints. Federer’s postoperative knee would struggle to withstand lengthy battles on the surface.
At this point in his unmatched career, the Swiss’ utmost priority is to remain healthy, enjoy the game and keep challenging for majors. In theory, capturing a maiden Monte-Carlo or Rome title would be cool. Yet, they are peccata minuta compared to a potential ninth Wimbledon or sixth US Open crown. Surviving seven rounds of best-of-five tennis at Roland Garros with his surgically repaired knee would be a pipe dream for the soon-to-be 37-year-old.
Take a look at this LeBron James analogy. Are you seeing what he is doing lately? The reason it seems surprising is because his supporting cast is subpar this year. The current Cleveland Cavaliers are no surefire bet to dominate the Eastern Conference anymore. They need LeBron to go bananas on offense night in and night out to stand a chance. In previous years, the four-time MVP used to coast through the meaningless regular season only to turn into a monster come playoff time. Regardless of the otherworldly numbers Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Stephen Curry, Anthony Davis, or Kevin Durant were putting up, LeBron’s status as the best player in the game never felt questioned.
His contract with the Cavs obliges LeBron to show up between November and March, but Federer has no such commitment (more on that later). After becoming the oldest No. 1 in the Open Era, Federer should not bother with tournaments that do not necessarily maximize his chances at another Grand Slam or World Tour Finals title. Thus, playing Halle is a no brainer. Rotterdam or Dubai, not so much anymore.
Hell, Federer may regain the No. 1 ranking from his couch. Rafael Nadal owns a meager 100-point edge, but he defends a whopping 4,180 units in the upcoming two months.
Is Federer abiding by the ATP rules?
Wait, aren’t Masters 1000 (except Monte-Carlo) mandatory for healthy Top 30 players? The short answer is yes, but there are several caveats. As explained on Open Era Rankings, a player may forgo up to three Masters if he meets these criteria:
- He has turned 30 by the dawn of the calendar year.
- He has played 600 ATP level matches.
- He has accrued 12 years of service time.
Federer easily checks all these boxes. However, also per Open Era Rankings, he will be given 0-point penalties on Madrid and Rome (and French Open) because a player shall not skip the same events two years in a row.
How does this affect Federer? Theoretically, using the aforementioned exemptions would allow him to count other non-mandatory tourneys toward his ranking instead of these Masters. Remember, a top player ranking is comprised of the points obtained at the four Grand Slams, eight mandatory Masters, plus his six best results in other tournaments. In short, up to 18 tournaments plus the World Tour Finals. Anyway, Federer plays such a short calendar that the rule does not penalize him in practice. Over the last 52 weeks, the Swiss legend has only played four non-mandatory tournaments: Stuttgart, Halle, Basel and Rotterdam. Team competitions like the Hopman Cup or Laver Cup do not count, folks.
Hence, Federer is free to go on paternal duty.
Last but not least: clay stains rarely vanish from the socks. Nike will save some bucks.