Victorious Federer feeling no pressure heading on return to clay

 - Simon Cambers

"Rendez-vous à Roland-Garros": With his 101st title in the bag, the 37-year-old has little to lose

A relax Roger Federer is waiting to send some balls in the crowd at Indian Wells 2019©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

When Roger Federer announced in January that he would be returning to Roland-Garros this summer for the first time since 2015, there were many who asked the question, why?

Why, at the age of 37, would he extend himself on clay, potentially risking injury, when his best chances of adding to his record 20 grand slam titles would seem to be on grass at Wimbledon, or perhaps at the US Open?

Federer looked good as ever

In the three years he was absent from the French Open, Federer reached the semi-finals at Wimbledon in 2016, won the title in 2017 and last summer, reached the quarter-finals, edged out 13-11 in the final set by Kevin Anderson.

But momentum and confidence are so important to every player, and Federer’s victory over John Isner in the final of the Miami Masters on Sunday has put him in rude health going into the clay-court season. His 28th Masters 1000 title gave him 101 titles overall and he is now No 1 in the ATP Race, the calendar year rankings.

Federer looked as good as ever in Miami, crushing Denis Shapovalov in the semi-finals and then destroying John Isner in the final. Though Isner was struggling with a foot injury as the match wore on, Federer won 20 out of 20 points on first serve, numbers that make him virtually impossible to beat, no matter what the surface.

The second best clay-courter in the world

It is 10 years since Federer won his only French Open title to date, finally getting over the line after being battered by Rafael Nadal in each of the three previous years. In those days, Federer was the second best clay-courter in the world and it should be noted that he has lost just once before the quarter-finals since 2004.

And still, no one will expect much from Federer on clay this year, especially as he has not played on the surface, competitively, since 2016. Though Nadal and Novak Djokovic will be the big favourites in Paris, and Dominic Thiem will fancy his chances, Federer can just go about his business, swing free and see what happens.

"What this win does for me is it just takes even more pressure off from the clay-court season,” Federer said. “That's what I'm looking at now the next four or five weeks, figuring out how we are going to go about it. I'm very excited. It's a good challenge, a good test."

Roger Federer praparing a slice in the beautiful light in Indian Wells 2019©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT
"I'm not very confident going into this clay-court season"

The plan is for Federer to play in the Mutua Madrid Masters in early May, before going on to Roland Garros. Ranked No 4 after his Miami win and with nothing to defend before the grass-court season, any slip-ups from those above him could even see him pushing for the No 1 spot again later this summer.

The one unknown is how Federer will fare on clay. With its extended rallies and greater emphasis on fitness, it may be that much harder to cope with for someone whose 38th birthday is just four months away. He knows it won’t be easy to replicate his hard-court displays.

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“I'm not very confident going into this clay-court season, I can tell you that,” Federer said in Miami.

“I didn't even remember how to slide anymore. I'm taking baby steps at this point. I didn't play one point - not one shot - on clay last year. Two years ago, I played two days. Three years ago I played not feeling great in Monte-Carlo and Rome and all that. It's been so little that I really don't know what to expect.”

Roger Federer playing with the camera at Indian Wells 2019©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT
Title No101!

Time and again, Federer has proved people wrong. When he lost to Stefanos Tsitsipas in the fourth round of the Australian Open in January, there was talk of a changing of the guard. What did Federer do? He beat Tsitsipas handily when they played in the final in Dubai as the Swiss racked up his 100th title. 

Victory in Miami gave him title No 101, eight behind the record of Jimmy Connors and a nice target to have, even in the back of his mind. Writing on Twitter after the Miami final, Rod Laver said he believes Federer can get the record.

“He's closing in - the Miami victory is a real incentive,” Laver said. “Great for tennis fans around the world, I can't wait for the fabulous tennis we're going to see in the upcoming clay-court and grass-court seasons.”

Twenty years ago, Federer played his first French Open, losing to Pat Rafter in the first round. Two decades on, he will be back, playing incredibly well and still proving the doubters wrong. Who’s to say he won’t do the same at Roland Garros?