- Alix Ramsay

The 2009 champion has missed his time in the French capital and now he says: “I just want to play”.

Roger Federer looking ahead at the 2019 Australian Open©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

After four years away, Roger Federer is coming back to Roland Garros this summer. The 2009 champion has missed his time in the French capital and now he says: “I just want to play”

Fun comes in many forms: for some, it is a 10-mile run; for the rest of us, it is a 10-minute nap. But fun, it seems, for Roger Federer it is another shot at Roland Garros glory.

The pressure is huge


Now, much as we all love the two weeks of toil and drama on the red courts of Paris, it is not what you might call ‘fun’ for the competitors. The matches are long (even the straight sets ones), the pressure is huge and the battle for the second Grand Slam trophy of the season is deadly serious. Fun and games this ain’t. But Roger thinks it might be, so he is coming back to Roland Garros for the first time since 2015.

In 2016, he missed the French Open as he recovered from knee surgery. The following year, he thought it would be wise to let his body rest and recover from a stunning first three months of the year – he won the Australian Open, Indian Wells and Miami – and given that taking a two-and-a-half month sabbatical resulted in him storming back to win in Halle and Wimbledon, he thought he would use the same formula in 2018.

That did not work out quite so well: the mighty Fed won the Australian Open to claim his 20th Grand Slam title and then went to Rotterdam in pursuit of points and the No.1 ranking. He got them, too, but after that he could not keep up his relentless winning run.



Not his last clay court season


No matter, at the age of 37, the GOAT is still happy to adapt and change. These days, with 99 career titles and 1183 match wins (and counting) to his name, he has earned the right to play as and when he likes.

He is not obliged to play any tournament if he does not want to (even if that does limit his ranking options and this week he sits at No.7 in the world) and so Fed trains smart, schedules clever and plays only when he feels his body is ready for the challenge. And this year, he thinks the heart, the legs and all the other bits are ready for the clay.

Before anyone starts putting two and two together to make five, Fed was at pains to point out that this sudden change of mind about Roland Garros does not mean that he is saying goodbye. This is not – he hopes – his last clay court season nor is this his farewell tour. The birthdays keep racking up but our hero is as keen as ever to keep on playing.

Roger Federer in blue at the 2019 Australian OIpen©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT
Fed's 'baby steps'


“This doesn't mean this is my last clay court season, or I had to play one more time before I retired. That was not the thinking,” Federer told the ATP website as he prepared for the start of the Dubai Duty Free Championships this week. “My body was ready, I was ready, my schedule with the family, my schedule with the team was ready to do it again. This is when I opted to say, ‘It will be nice. Instead of taking a big chunk off, I'd rather stay in the rhythm and actually enjoy myself on the clay.’ It's going to be challenging, no doubt about it. I have to take baby steps in the beginning to some extent, but that's OK.”

Federer has not played at all on clay since the Masters 1000 in Rome in 2016 where he lost in the third round to Dominic Thiem in straight sets. Reacquainting himself with life on the red brick dust may take a little time, then, and to sharpen his reflexes, he has entered the Mutua Madrid Open before he heads to Paris. 

The Spanish capital sits 667m above sea level and the courts play a bit faster up there which should make Fed’s ‘baby steps’ a little easier. But down at Seine level, he knows he will need to be ready for the long haul. But still he is excited to be coming back to Roland Garros.



 

Fed can play on clay


“I think after not playing for two years, also missing the French [Open] three years ago because of injury, I think the team understood that I was in the mood to do it again,” he said. “I did grow up on clay, after all. I felt like my body is strong enough now again to do the surface changes from hard to clay to grass to hard. In the past I felt different. It was purely based on [the fact that] I would just like to play. We can always readjust the schedule accordingly depending how I play the clay.”

And Fed can play on clay. He has reached five French Open finals in his time, and won one of them. The four he lost were all to a certain Mr R. Nadal of Mallorca – then again, that same Mr Nadal has never lost a Roland Garros final and he has won 11 of them. In his pomp on the red stuff, Fed was undoubtedly the second best clay court player on the planet – it was just that he kept bumping into the greatest clay court player of all time every time the trophy was within touching distance.

Injuries permitting, Rafa will be back to torment Roger again this summer. But the Swiss does not mind: he just wants to play on the clay again and have some fun. And if Roger is having fun, who knows what can happen.