With the start of the French Open now just a fortnight away, the “state of clay” in the men’s game in general and that of Roger Federer in particular is absolutely fascinating. So far, it has probably been the most competitive and hence most memorable clay-court season in recent years. The defending French Open champion, Rafael Nadal, undoubtedly deserves to remain the favorite for the Major he has won 11 times. However, there are now perhaps more genuine contenders to his crown as King of Clay than ever before, including Novak Djokovic, Dominic Thiem, and Fabio Fognini, the winners in Madrid, Barcelona, and Monte Carlo respectively. And after a promising return to the surface that he has studiously avoided for the past three years, perhaps even Federer can be considered as a contender, or at least an outsider, for the French Open, an entire decade on from his first and so far only triumph at Roland Garros.
Madrid last week
In many ways, Federer’s run in Madrid was the perfect return to clay for the great Swiss. That might seem an odd statement to make, given that he was knocked out in the quarterfinals by Dominic Thiem after holding two match points. However, Thiem was fresh from his triumph in Barcelona, whereas Federer was only just beginning to find his feet on clay again after the injuries that curtailed his 2016 clay-court season (and led to his withdrawal from that year’s French Open) and the decision to skip the 2017 and 2018 clay-court seasons completely. The very fact that Federer was competing on clay at all was proof that he is in good mental and physical shape, because it was his worries about the surface and in particular the increased chance of incurring an injury before Wimbledon that led to him keeping off the red dirt for the last two years.
All in all, Federer’s performance in Madrid was a positive one. In his first match against Richard Gasquet, he appeared imperious (although, sadly for Gasquet, that is usually how Federer looks against him). His second match, against Gael Monfils, was much more turbulent, with Federer bagelling Monfils in the first set before it seemed that Monfils would return the compliment in the second set. Eventually Federer won in three sets to reach the quarterfinals. Although he ultimately lost to Thiem after winning the first set, which was a repeat of their meeting in the Indian Wells final on hard court earlier this year, he showed enough of his usual flair and panache to suggest that he was not finding his return to clay to be unduly onerous.
That impression was confirmed when Federer announced, soon after his defeat to Thiem in Madrid, that he would be playing this week at the Rome Masters, the last big clay-court tournament before the biggest of them all, the French Open. If Federer had experienced any physical issues as a result of playing in Madrid, he would surely not have played in Rome.
Federer’s clay level
So where exactly is Federer’s clay-court game in 2019? Although it is obviously impossible to make a complete assessment on the basis of just three matches, it can be said that he seems to have rekindled his affection for clay. Given Nadal’s domination of the French Open in the last 15 years, it is easy to forget that Federer himself has probably been the second-best clay-court player overall in that time, and although it is now eight years since he last reached the final at Roland Garros (where he lost to Nadal for a fourth time) his performances in Madrid proved that he still remains among the finest players on the surface.
Of course, difficulties may arise in Paris because of the very different format of a Major tournament. Playing best-of-five matches every two days will definitely be more arduous for Federer, and indeed for everyone else, than playing best-of-three sets every day in a Masters 1000 tournament. Nevertheless, given the continuing excellence of Federer’s physical conditioning (he may be in the best shape ever of any athlete who is fast approaching their fortieth birthday), competing in the French Open may be more of a mental challenge for him than a physical one.
It has been increasingly evident in the latter years of Federer’s career (that is, from about 2012 onwards) that he simply does not possess the extraordinary capacity to concentrate continuously that defined the first and golden part of his career. Even against Monfils in Madrid, the fact that he could oscillate so wildly between bagelling an opponent in one set and then nearly being bagelled himself in the next set showed that it is probably impossible for a near-40-year-old father of four to demonstrate the same laser-like mental focus that characterised his twenties and early thirties.
Federer’s current goals
However, set against Federer’s potentially reduced mental capacity is an infinitely greater capacity for him simply to enjoy the moment and revel in what must be the twilight years of his incredible career. When he announced his return to clay this season, he made it clear that he not only felt comfortable in taking on a greater workload on such a demanding surface but that he was absolutely determined not to have any “regrets” about the final seasons in which he plays. Remarkable as it sounds that a 20-time Major Champion could possibly have any “regrets” about his stellar career, it was proof that for all his superhuman efforts Federer remains defiantly human.
It has been a characteristic of the late golden age of Federer’s career, which began in 2017 with his triumph against Nadal in the Australian Open final and has continued with two more Major titles since (Wimbledon 2017 and the Australian Open again in 2018), that he has been determined to make the absolute most of whatever time he has left on court. Long forgotten are the mental and physical agonies of the near five-year period, between winning Wimbledon in 2012 and winning in Melbourne in 2017, when it appeared almost certain that he would never win another Major.
Given that Federer has now won three more Majors, and will certainly remain among the favourites to win Wimbledon this year, he really has nothing left to prove, and that may just be what makes him a dangerous outsider for the French Open. Feeling relaxed and swinging freely, the mature (or even “extra mature”) Federer is capable of defeating anyone on clay, even his nemesis Nadal, especially given the recent relatively poor form that the great Spaniard has displayed during the clay-court season so far.
Of course it remains extremely unlikely that Federer will be capable of actually winning in Paris. After his near-evisceration of Stefanos Tsitsipas in the Madrid final, Novak Djokovic will surely start as the favourite to win a second French Open title and complete the second “Nole Slam” of his career by holding all four Major titles at the same time (if not quite winning them all in the same year, as is the case in a Calendar or Genuine Grand Slam). However, Federer will at least be absolutely fascinating to watch at Roland Garros, in what may yet be his last ever clay-court campaign. If it is, the signs are that he will typically leave his fans (which means much of the tennis world) with some marvelous memories of his time on the terre battue.
Main Photo from Getty