Federer: You need to put yourself out there

Swiss star accepts limitations but says it 'doesn't mean I ain't going to be hard to beat'

Roger Federer, practice, Roland-Garros 2021©️ Corinne Dubreuil/FFT
 - Dan Imhoff

Few players can attest to carrying the burden of expectations on their shoulders at every stop quite like Roger Federer.

The 39-year-old returned to practise on Court Phillipe-Chatrier this week, decked out in the same Swiss red and white as when he first strode onto court for his much-hyped Grand Slam debut at Roland-Garros 22 years ago.

At polar ends of his career, the 20-time major champion accepts those expectations have shifted, as they should for an elder statesman of the men’s game, having barely hit a match ball in more than a year after rehabilitation from two right knee surgeries.

His sole clay-court lead-up event on home soil in Geneva may not have gone according to plan – a first-round departure against veteran Spaniard Pablo Andujar – but the big picture was never about one match.

“You just need to put yourself out there,” he said in Geneva. “Sometimes it's not fun when you know where your limitations are. Obviously, for me it's always difficult because people expect a lot from me and I have high expectations for myself so when I walk out of a match today and I think ‘My God, I could play so much better’, it feels strange, it's disappointing but at the same time this is the process I need to go through.”

Despite there being 58 majors between them, Federer is not losing sleep after Thursday’s draw pitted him in the same quarter as Novak Djokjovic and in the same half as both his 'Big Three' contemporaries.

Seeded eighth, he opens his 19th Roland-Garros campaign against Uzbekistan’s Denis Istomin, a qualifier he has not fallen to in seven prior showdowns.

Having reached the quarter-finals or better in 11 of his past 12 appearances on the clay in Paris, he knows what it takes to play his way into this event.

He also knows to accept his limitations.

“I’m just realistic that I know I will not win [Roland-Garros] and whoever thought I would or could win it is wrong,” Federer said. 

“Of course crazier things might have happened, but I’m not so sure in the last 50 years at [Roland-Garros] somebody just rocked up at 40 years old being out for a year and a half and just go on to win everything in straight or in five sets.

“I know my limitations at the moment, but that doesn't mean I ain't going to be hard to beat.”

One man who shared the practice court with the Swiss in Geneva was world No.15 Gael Monfils. The Frenchman held no doubt the level was still there and that no contender would relish seeing their name drawn against Federer's.

"If he comes here, it's that he still feels that he can do something very good," Monfils said. "I am as impatient as you to see how he will handle this. It's interesting to see how a legend like him will handle it all, all these questions, that everyone in the world is asking.

"From my point of view, athletically-speaking, what I saw in one weekend, it was already extraordinary. I think he's going to be not easy to match, by a lot of the players."

Beyond the pandemic, much has changed since Federer’s most recent outing at a major – the 2020 Australian Open.

Whether his best – with limitations – is still enough to challenge again at the pointy end of the Slams will become apparent should his body hold up.

“I think the moment I’m healthy or able to get matches under my belt, get used to being out on court, serving for hours, recovering, doing the same thing again, that will all just increase my confidence and then I believe I will be part of the top tier,” Federer said.

“One thing is for sure, that generation of Tsitsipases and Zverevs and Rublevs, the Medvedevs, have all again got better naturally because they have all got more experience.

“Dominic won a Slam in the meantime, Rafa and Novak are still where they are… For me that will be an extra challenge, extra hard for me to find that level, but I guess I knew from the get-go it was never going to be simple regardless of whether I was going to be out for three months or a year.”