The fantastic Mr. Federer, back on clay

The last time that the fantastic Roger Federer played at Roland Garros was in 2015. He went down in the quarterfinals and he seemed done at this event.

He could certainly still win on grass, or on the hardcourts, but on clay, in Paris, the 20-time Grand Slam champion has only won it once during the last 15 years, while his great rival and Spaniard Rafael Nadal has grabbed it 11 times. 

The Spaniard locks in, he sprints around, he hits with a huge amount of pace and extremely heavy off the ground. Off the clay, he has also has his problems in recent years now, but on this surface he is still the man to beat.

The 17-time Grand Slam champion Nadal has bashed Federer a number of times in the 16th   arrondissement, as he attacks his backhand, extends points and runs forever on the dirt.

In 2015, Federer was shocked by his good friend, Stan Wawrinka, in the quarterfinals. He’d never lost to Wawrinka on hardcourts or grass, where they had played many, many times.  But that time, in Paris, on clay, Wawrinka’s monster backhand was on fire, and Federer could not control him.

Then came knee surgery in 2016, when he returned on the clay only to start having more physical problems and being forced to withdraw from Roland Garros. An incredible comeback followed in 2017 as he won the Australian Open, but he still was so cautious about clay that during the next three years, he said ‘No, I am not going to play in France, I just need to rest.’

So he waited, and he waited. But something inside him wanted to return to Paris in the springtime, to slide and sashay on a surface where he grew up. Following this year’s Australian Open, he announced that he would be playing a limited claycourt schedule — Paris, and a warm-up in Madrid.

At the beginning of April, Federer won Miami once again, and he was thrilled. But did it increase his odds to win the French Open?

He doesn’t seem to care whether it did. “I really want to go into the clay playing pressure-less, pressure-free,” Federer said. “If things don’t go well, then I can say maybe that was expected, and if they do go well, then I’m definitely excited. And then when the stakes get really important, I might be able to play some nice tennis on clay again.”

Federer will start in Madrid in a few weeks.  Even if he wins it — and it’ll be his first event on clay in three years — can he still snag Roland Garros? It is possible, but he will not be the major favorite. 

Nadal has been injured this year, but if he gets healthy, then he and the massive forehand he possesses will be favorite. The same goes with the No. 1 Novak Djokovic, who has won 15 Grand Slams, and three in a row: the 2018 Wimbledon, the 2018 US Open, and recently the Australian Open. He badly wants to do the Djokovic Slam again, so he can show the world that he might be the best player of all time.

Outside of those three, there are a few young players who are rising. Dominic Thiem, who won Indian Wells, is at his best on clay and the Austrian has reached the French Open final. The German Alexander Zverev is ranked No. 3, and he has won a few ATP 1000 Masters, but in the Grand Slams, he has yet to get beyond the quartefinals. But Zverev is a huge basher on both sides, and when he is confident, he can hang around in the rally for a very long time. Soon enough, he will go deep at  majors.

The Greek Stefanos Tsitsipas is only 20 years old and recently cracked the top 10. Like Zverev, he can be patient, but anytime he has an opportunity, he can aim for the lines and touch them. Two other very tall youngsters are getting better all the time: Russians Karen Khachanov and Daniil Medvedev, both of whom are in the top 15. And others, like Canadian teenager Felix Auger-Aliassime, are also coming up.

Ten years ago, in 2009, the now 37-year-old Federer won the French Open. The established champ Nadal was stunned by the Swede Robin Soderling, while Federer had to come back from behind against Germany’s Tommy Haas and Argentina’s Juan Martin del Potro (who is still there, but is currently injured). In the final, the smart Federer out-thought Soderling to lift the Roland Garros title for the first time and complete the career Slam. He still looks at it as one of the best wins of his career.

Ten years ago, on clay, Federer was super confident. Perhaps he still is.  It is early to know exactly who he would play during two hard weeks at Roland Garros. But if Federer starts playing extremely well, then whoever goes up against him has to play at a top level to trip him up. If he does not, Federer will knock him down quickly.

After all, when he walks on the court, Mr. Roger Federer can be simply brilliant. And he likes to smile, too.