Just when you thought Roger Federer was going to make a mockery of the ATP tour for three straight months at the age of 36, he lets three championship points slip by at Indian Wells, bungles the tiebreak that would’ve won him the tournament, and then lays an egg in another final-set tiebreak, this time against 175th ranked Thanasi Kokkinakis at the Miami Open. I for one wasn’t to guess that a season which began with Federer steamrolling all comers at the Australian Open—thereby increasing his major title haul to 20—and replacing Andre Agassi as the oldest man to occupy the top spot in the rankings, would take so galling a turn for the worse. Forget matches—subpar Federer service games were a collector’s item not so long ago. Now, Federer’s troubles, writ large in consecutive and avoidable three-set defeats, are making him look every bit his age. A sure sign that he is feeling every bit his age is the announcement that followed Saturday’s loss to Kokkinakis: For the second year running, Federer will not take any part in the clay season.
The man himself had this to say: “I decided not to play the clay season. I am trying to figure things out now, I have some time. I’m a positive thinker, every match is another opportunity. You take a break, get away from it all, and get back to practice court and work.” Clearly, the eschewal of clay court tennis, at this stage of Federer’s career, needn’t be rigorously justified to spectators, sponsors and tournament directors. The logic employed is self-evident.
In a practical sense, Federer continuing to expand his trophy cabinet until he retires and playing extensively on a surface that is both conducive to taxing rallies and requiring of knee-busting movements, are mutually exclusive states of affairs. The style of movement used to navigate a clay court—sliding—is the principal hazard. Sliding places an enormous strain on the creaking joints of an ageing athlete. If you need convincing, Federer’s long-serving fitness coach Pierre Paganini explained the finer points of sliding to the New York Times last month. He propounded the notion that sliding on clay can be uniquely baneful:
“The advantage when you play on clay for the joints is there is less shock because there is the slide, and the disadvantage on hard courts is there is that shock,” he said. “But the advantage on hard courts is that the shock is brief. It’s bang and the foot leaves the ground and a player who is as coordinated and a dancer like Federer, he crushes his joints a bit less at that bad moment.
“In contrast, the disadvantage with the slide on clay is that in the joints there is a lot of vibration. We don’t see it from the outside, but to control this slide there is instability in the knee, the foot, the ankle. And that in some cases can be bad for the knee or joint in question.”
The second consideration that always militated heavily against Federer incorporating clay events into his playing schedule was the small matter of Wimbledon. Even on a surface tailor-made for his brand of tennis, the possibility of Federer outperforming his competition at SW19 hinges upon how fresh he is physically. A tired man pushing forty doesn’t win majors, no matter how greatly he has mastered the art, or how weak the field is. Federer could’ve chosen to stress-test his knee on the ‘faster’ clay of Madrid, for instance, but what good would that preparation be, on its own, for the French Open if the court speed at Roland Garros is far less forgiving? What Federer might have gained in points, he would’ve lost disproportionately in energy and preparation time for the most important period of his season.
Although Federer has an enviable three months to regroup while other players run themselves ragged playing endless rounds of dirtball, many of his recent performances elicit suspicions of trouble in paradise. Federer’s backhand, a crisp and game-changing stroke throughout 2017, has been defanged lately by sluggish footwork and a creeping reliance on the slice. The forehand and serve, the two most durable pillars of his game, have been malfunctioning as regularly during the comfortable moments of matches as when he’s been pressured.
Largely, those issues will be ironed out on the practice court; Federer’s time off before Halle affords him the opportunity to polish his shots until they gleam with the utmost dependability. The intangibles, like his facility for clear-sighted decision-making in tight spots, should return once he starts winning convincingly again. Still, nothing is a given. Not everything will fall into place the second Federer sets foot on a grass court. There will be further stumbles and head-scratchers because Federer’s existence as a tennis player presently subsists, by any reasonable measure, on borrowed time. For now, Federer can rest easy knowing that grass will be kind to his body and the number one ranking—which he unhanded upon losing to Kokkinakis—will soon be his if Rafael Nadal’s results on clay are anything less than perfect. Not as easy as last year, however. Far from it.