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Madrid Open 2019: Roger Federer's claycourt return promises great things in the face of seemingly insurmountable adversity

If you’re a Roger Federer fan, you’ve probably watched and re-watched his 2011 French Open semi-final match against Novak Djokovic a million times already. Federer may have never been defined by his claycourt exploits, but that match defined him in more ways than one.

It had everything that the man has been celebrated over the years for – the variety, the pin-point precision, the clutch play, and perhaps most surprisingly, the defense. This was Federer at his flawless, most dazzling best, pitted against a Djokovic who was also at the absolute peak of his powers.

But while it had seemed at the time that the win was a sign of better things to come on his least favored surface, it turned out to be the precipice of his claycourt career. Eight years have passed since then and not once has Federer even remotely come close to reaching those heights again. In fact, five years after that seemingly watershed moment, he decided that clay was not for him anymore.

You couldn’t exactly blame him for that either. Skipping the 2016 French Open was the only option he had given his health issues that year, and skipping the 2017 clay swing ensured he was fresh enough to win Wimbledon without dropping a set. Last year was a little less justifiable considering he hadn’t played too much tennis in the first three months of the year, but it still seemed like a logical decision considering his generally slower late-30s movement and court coverage.

 Madrid Open 2019: Roger Federers claycourt return promises great things in the face of seemingly insurmountable adversity

Roger Federer returns the ball to Novak Djokovic during their semi-final match at the 2011 French Open. Reuters

Clay is not a surface where you want to be slogging away in less-than-peak physical condition, and Federer has been getting farther away from his peak physical condition with each passing year.

“I’m not 24 anymore so things have changed in a big way and I probably won’t play any claycourt event except the French Open,” Federer had said back in 2017 while explaining his decision to cut down on his clay commitments.

Clearly though, things have ‘changed in a big way’ for him again. “I’m in a phase where I want to have fun,” Federer said after his fourth-round loss at the Australian Open earlier this year. “It’s a bit of a desire (to play on clay again). I don’t feel it is necessary to have a big break again.”

The keyword here is ‘fun’. In a way, it really is all fun and games for the Swiss maestro at this point of his career. He has nothing to prove any more on any surface, so making his life decisions based on what he’ll enjoy the most seems par for the course.

It is early in the claycourt season, but Federer certainly seems to be enjoying his time on the dirt so far. Last month he shared a couple of posts on his Instagram handle where he looked almost obscenely excited to be back on clay; his toothy grins threatened to drown out everything else in the pictures. His fitness coach Pierre Paganini has reinforced that, saying Federer on clay “is like a child going on his first school trip.”

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Will Federer continue enjoying it so much if the results don’t go his way? He has been in good form recently, but clay is a different animal altogether.

Much of Federer’s post-2017 success has been built on hugging the baseline and taking the ball as early as humanly as possible. That attack-first-and-ask-questions-later approach works beautifully on quicker surfaces, irrespective of his age; not a match goes by where a Federer half-volley winner doesn’t elicit a reverent swoon from a member of the audience. But on clay, where the bounce is higher and also generally less predictable than hardcourts, those half-volleys are more likely to go into the net or sailing into the crowd than past the opponents for clean winners.

Federer will have no option but to take a step back and hit his groundstrokes with more margin on clay, and it is unclear whether he has the fitness or the foot-speed to do that now. Dominic Thiem’s recent win in Barcelona showed us once again just how punishing modern claycourt tennis can be, and it’s hard to imagine the 2019 Federer being able to trade viciously spinning groundstrokes with someone like Thiem.

The man himself is under no illusions that he is going to immediately start tearing up the claycourts the moment he steps on them. “I did grow up on clay, but I don’t know how good I can still be after not playing on it for three years,” Federer had said after his Miami win. “I really want to go into the clay playing pressure-less, pressure-free. 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.”

So there you have it: Federer’s biggest objective is to ‘play some nice tennis on clay’, and not necessarily win big titles on clay. That’s as good an approach as any while entering territory that seems specifically designed to nullify all your strengths, and it might even help him remain ‘pressure-free’.

Is it a chicken-and-egg kind of situation though? If Federer does play with complete freedom, does he have a chance of becoming relevant on clay again, half-volleys and all? Many in the tennis world seem to think so.

Dominic Thiem recently reminded everyone that Federer’s “win and loss record is one of the best on clay”, and Kei Nishikori suggested that Federer can “do anything if he tries 100 percent” while expressing confidence that the Swiss veteran will “do very well on clay”. Novak Djokovic, meanwhile, expects Federer to “be at his best and among the favorites (for Roland Garros)”.

There is plenty of motivation for Federer to prove his ‘well-wishers’ right too. He is World No. 4 in the ATP rankings right now, and has a big chance to move up considering he has no points to defend over the next month and a half. He is also second in the ATP year-end rankings race, and given the recent struggles of Djokovic and Nadal, a top 2 year-end finish (or maybe even a No. 1 finish, if the pipe dreams of Federer fans are anything to go by) is not out of the question.

That he is beginning his claycourt comeback in Madrid, and not Monte Carlo or Barcelona or even Rome, might be of some help too. The quicker conditions in Spain’s capital city have always suited his game better than the relatively stifling air in Monte Carlo and Rome – Federer has won two titles in Madrid, and zero at all the other claycourt events combined.

But there’s one factor more than any other that promises to make Federer’s return to clay a must-watch affair. The Swiss has defeated Rafael Nadal the last five times the two have met, with none of those meetings coming on clay. What will happen when the inevitable clay reunion comes to pass?

We know that Federer has learned to play on his own terms against his arch-nemesis, and also developed a couple of foolproof strategies to counter Nadal’s lefty topspin forehand. But we also know that most strategies go out of the window when pitted against Nadal on clay; the surface is too conducive to the Spaniard’s game for small adjustments and tweaks to make much of a difference.

A Federer vs Nadal match on clay could finally tell us whether the recent reversal in their rivalry is surface-specific, or if the Swiss has truly gotten rid of his mental block against Nadal for good (and maybe implanted a few blocks in Nadal’s mind). In other words, it could tell us whether their 15-year-old rivalry is completely mental right now, or if the X’s and O’s of their games still have a significant bearing on the outcome.

“I’d love to play Rafa on clay, best-of-five-set match, don’t get me wrong,” Federer had said last year, when he was still debating whether he was going to play on clay or not. “I’d like to see what happen now. But there is absolutely no guarantee that I would have a better chance now than before.”

We were left just as much in the dark as Federer about that, as he ultimately decided not to play the 2018 clay swing. But this year, starting with the Madrid Masters, the entire world would be hoping that the darkness is lifted, and we get one more full-tilt Fedal claycourt clash – maybe for the last time ever.

And perhaps a Federer vs Djokovic clash thrown in too, because who wouldn’t want to see a repeat of their 2011 match? If we are going to dream, we might as well dream big.

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Updated Date: May 02, 2019 21:08:44 IST