After 405 days away, will 20 centimetres prove the difference between success and failure for Roger Federer?
The 20-time Grand Slam champion is set to play his first match in over a year on Wednesday at the Qatar Open in Doha after undergoing two knee surgeries. He says he chose the ATP 250 tournament for his comeback as he wanted to be away from the “spotlight”, but all eyes will be on the 39-year-old to see how he performs and whether he looks like he will contend at the top of the game again.
Especially because time is not on his side. He has spoken this week about wanting to be 100 per cent for Wimbledon, which starts in three-and-a-half months. How many players have returned from over a year out and been able to compete for Grand Slam titles so quickly? Federer only needs to look to his fellow Swiss Stan Wawrinka or Andy Murray to see how difficult their roads back after surgery have been.
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Federer might still have the same vision, speed of thought and reading of the game, but fine margins around the court might be crucial.
"He won't be very match-fit, but that's not the main problem," former Swiss tennis player Heinz Gunthardt, who also coached Steffi Graf for seven years, told Tages-Anzeiger.
The big question is how good is he at running. Has he lost a few inches there? 20cm sounds like a little, but is a lot.
"It gives the opponent more of a margin if you are slower, starting with the return. Then he feels less pressure and makes fewer mistakes."
Gunthardt believes that Federer’s comeback will be “one of the greatest challenges” in tennis and that he has to “move well” and “build confidence in his body” if he is going to be successful.
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His serve will also be key.
Novak Djokovic showed the importance of strong serving at the Australian Open as he fired down a tournament-high 103 aces. The world No 1 has been working on improving his serve under the guidance of coach Goran Ivanisevic and it has been paying off, with Frances Tiafoe comparing it to John Isner’s serve after their second-round match in Melbourne.
It is expected that Federer will want to keep points as short as possible, but, along with his serve, speed around the court will be crucial to that.
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"We're talking about persistence of speed,” Pierre Paganini, Federer’s fitness coach for over 20 years, told Tages-Anzeiger.
"You don't have to run a world record. You have to sprint as fast as possible, as cleverly as possible and be as coordinated as possible. If the player's name is Roger Federer - with his eye, his game intelligence and the vast experience he has…
"In tennis there are ways of doing things differently to a certain extent. But there is absolutely nothing to hide here: We are working hard on this speed because we know very well that this will be an important point."
Even if his foot speed is not the best it has ever been, Federer has so many other qualities in his game that make his return to the tour so exciting. He also has the “Federer bonus” as Gunthardt calls it – the fact that he is the great Roger Federer. And he undoubtedly has the passion to get back to his best for perhaps one final year on the tour.
"You get younger when you watch him exercise," says Paganini.
"The first time he jumped the hurdle again, he was almost euphoric. Hey, now it's not the crutches anymore, now it's the hurdles… When a player at almost 40 has to do exercises again that a 70-year-old can manage without problems, and is happy that Tuesday was better than Monday - if that's not a passion!"
But will passion and Federer’s previous brilliance be enough after so long out?
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Murray has shown that getting back to the top of the game after surgery and a lengthy spell away is far from easy. The three-time Grand Slam champion has slipped out of the top 100 in the world following hip surgery in 2019 and has only managed one win at ATP Tour level since August last year.
However, he thinks Federer will soon be playing "top-level tennis" again.
"I just want to get out and compete and just enjoy doing what I am doing. I imagine Roger would be the same,” said Murray.
"I am sure he has been training hard and is excited to get back out there and compete. I am sure in time, providing that his body is good, that he will play top-level tennis again because he is that good. Even if there is a slight drop-off physically for him, I would back his skill against most players. I am sure he will be fine."
Federer himself says that "expectations are really low" this week, but his return over the next few months is going to be followed very closely.
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