Roger Federer returns to clay after three years

Roger Federer returns to clay

Roger Federer will return to the clay courts of Europe after nearly three years away from them, when he competes at the Madrid Open in May. The Swiss Maestro has been in excellent form recently, registering his 101st ATP Tour title with a comfortable straight-sets win over John Isner in the final of the Miami Open in March. That success followed quickly in the steps of his 100th ATP title, which he claimed a few weeks earlier in Dubai. He also made the final at Indian Wells in between those two successes, but lost to Dominic Thiem.  

Federer is now closing in on Jimmy Connors’s record of 109 ATP Tour titles, and his recent form has boosted his chances of a successful and long-awaited return to clay tournaments, starting at the Mutua Madrid Open, which takes place 3-12 May.

A magnificent Miami for Federer

In the first round at Miami, the round of 64, Federer was taken to three sets by Moldovan, Radu Albot, but after coming through that test, he didn’t drop another set as he marched effortlessly to the title. He went on to beat Filip Krajinovic (7-5, 6-3), Daniil Medvedev (6-4, 6-2), Kevin Anderson (6-0, 6-4), and Denis Shapovalov (6-2, 6-4) to set up a final with the home favourite, John Isner.

Federer was in dominant form in the final, completely nullifying the American’s big serve in the first set. He was able to return Isner’s serve with relative ease, before reeling off 21 successive points on his own serve to win the first set 6-1.

The second set was much closer, going on serve until the very end, when Federer finally broke Isner again in the tenth game to take the set 6-4 and win the title.

Beaten finalist at Indian Wells

Before claiming the title in Miami, and following his success in Dubai where he gained revenge against Stefanos Tsitsipas by beating him in the final after the Greek had knocked him out of the Australian Open, Federer went in search of another title at Indian Wells.

He cruised through to the semi-finals without losing a set, beating Peter Gojowczyk (6-1, 7-5), Stan Wawrinka (6-3, 6-4), Kyle Edmund (6-1, 6-4), and Hubert Hurkacz (6-4, 6-4). He was then due to renew his rivalry with old adversary, Rafael Nadal. Unfortunately, the Spaniard was unable to play, allowing Federer to progress to another final to face Austria’s, Dominic Thiem.

Despite winning the opening set 6-3 and being on course for another Indian Wells championship, Thiem would fight back to win the second set 6-3, before claiming the championship 7-5 in the final set.

Is success at Indian Wells and Miami important for the rest of his season?

It was the start of 2017 that saw Federer enjoy a recent resurgence in the game. After beating Rafael Nadal in the Australian Open, he went on to win the ‘sunshine double’ by claiming both titles at Indian Wells and Miami.

He then went on to win his eighth Wimbledon title without dropping a single set, establishing himself as the greatest grass-court player of all time.    

However, in 2018, Federer lost the Indian Wells final to Juan Martin del Potro, despite having three match points to win it, then lost early on in Miami to Thanasi Kokkinakis. He would go on to lose at Wimbledon in the quarter-finals to Kevin Anderson, and in the fourth round at the US Open to John Millman.

Despite enjoying mixed fortunes at Indian Wells and Miami this year, he has ended the first part of the season in great form, replacing his Indian Wells conqueror, Dominic Thiem, as the World Number 4.

However, there is something different about Federer’s schedule this year which makes it difficult to predict how his performances at Indian Wells and Miami might influence the rest of the season. Unlike in 2017 and 2018, Federer will not skip the clay-court season this year and will compete in the red dirt events of Europe, starting in Madrid before finishing at the French Open at Roland Garros towards the end of May.

Federer makes his return to the clay-court season

Federer had chosen to skip the clay court season for the last two years to try to enhance his chances of doing well during the rest of the season, particularly at Wimbledon. His strategy worked out brilliantly.  

He won Wimbledon in 2017 and arguably played the best grass-court tennis that the All England Lawn Tennis Club had witnessed for a decade. Although he was unable to defend his title in 2018, he still looked strong and the favourite to do so, but was beaten in the quarter-finals by an inspired Kevin Anderson on the day.  

So why has he decided to return to clay this year? By not playing on clay for the last two years, the most unforgiving of surfaces, he has benefitted from it. However, his performances at Dubai, Indian Wells and Miami proved that he is currently playing somewhere near his best, unlike his old rivals, Nadal and Djokovic.

He will obviously hope to take that form into the European clay court season, which begins at Monte Carlo in April, a tournament Federer has chosen to miss.

There has been speculation that the return to clay is part of a ‘farewell tour’, although Federer continues to deny that he is anywhere near retirement. He has won every clay tournament in Europe, except for Monte Carlo, which Rafael Nadal has dominated for years. So why not have a go at them while you are back in form.

Is Federer eyeing French Open glory again?

The probable truth is that Federer genuinely believes he has a chance of winning the French Open title again, a decade on from his sole triumph at Roland Garros, when he completed his own career Grand Slam.

Rafael Nadal is the current hot favourite to win the French Open at odds of 10/11 with most leading bookmakers, like William Hill. Novak Djokovic is the second favourite at 7/4, with Dominic Thiem 10/1 and Alexander Zverev 12/1 the next best.

Federer enters the equations as the fifth-favourite, at odds of 33/1 with some bookies (Bet-at-Home). Incredible odds for arguably the best tennis player of all time.

The reason for such long odds will be his absence from the clay-courts, but Federer has also not competed at the French Open for four years. It was 2016 that he began his non-attendance at the tournament, withdrawing through injury, which also ended his incredible record of appearing at 65 consecutive Grand Slams, since missing the US Open in 1999.

In 2015 the signs were there that he was increasingly finding it harder, both tactically and physically, to play on the clay. His fellow countryman, Stan Wawrinka, defeated him in straight sets in the French Open quarter-finals, on the way to his own remarkable achievement when beating Novak Djokovic in the final.

Federer is an excellent clay-court player

Federer has always been an excellent clay-court player; winning every tournament but for Monte Carlo. He has just had the misfortune of playing at a time when the King of Clay, Rafael Nadal, has played. Nadal has won 11 titles from his 15 appearance at Roland Garros, so is rightly a huge favorite this year.

It has genuinely been said by the French tennis media and fans, that at his best, Federer might be the second best clay-court player ever, after Nadal. The Madrid Open will see the Swiss Maestro arrive in excellent form, playing near his best tennis on hard courts.

He can carry that form into the clay-court season, which might be the last of his career. If he did go on to win the French Open again, at nearly 40 (see WilliamHill odds), it would be an incredible achievement. But one thing we have learnt over the years, is to never write-off Federer’s chances of doing the unbelievable.


2 years ago
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