After 13 months away, it’s now been nearly one month since Roger Federer last played a competitive match. The 20-time Grand Slam champion made his long-awaited comeback in Doha in early March, beating Dan Evans before losing to Nikoloz Basilashvili in three sets.
Those eager to see Federer playing again regularly would have hoped Doha was the start of a run of tournament appearances. But, having already opted not to play at the Miami Open at the end of March, he then pulled out of Dubai the week after Doha, and it looks like he won’t play again until the Madrid Open on May 2.
It’s perhaps not the comeback that was expected, but Federer is very much doing things his way. And, despite a lack of updates on social media, history suggests he will have been putting in plenty of work behind the scenes.
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Part of that is down to his determination to come back as a winner, which was clear when he decided not to rush his return earlier this year at the Australian Open.
"I could have played the Australian Open like this but worse,” he said after losing to Basilashvili in Doha. "And I'm not winning the Australian Open this way. That's why there's no point of going there."
Federer is not just coming back to compete – and he’s putting in the work to ensure he gets back to his best.
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He’s said that he sees the grass season as "basically the beginning of the season" for him, and over the next two months he will be working with coach Ivan Ljubicic, physio Daniel Troxler, and long-term fitness guru Pierre Paganini to reach peak condition.
Troxler helped Federer get back to full fitness after his knee injury in 2016, but Paganini has been arguably been one of the most important people in Federer’s career. The pair have been together for over 20 years, working on training regimes, diet, schedule, conditioning and more, and Federer has the utmost trust in Paganini.
Speaking about their relationship in 2019, Federer said: "We just shake hands and go ‘nice to see you, what’s the plan?’ He tells me what the situation is, what we’re going to work on, and that’s it."
Paganini has described Federer as "an artist with unbelievable creativity", but has also stressed how hard he works to be the best.
"I think we underestimate all the work Roger does, and it’s a beautiful problem he has," he said in 2018. "We underestimate it because when we see Roger play, we see the artist who expresses himself. We forget almost that he has to work to get there, like watching the ballet dancer: You see the beauty but you forget the work behind it. You have to work very, very hard to be that beautiful a dancer."
Federer has put in the hours over the last 14 months to get back to the level to play on the ATP Tour again, and he will be doing the same now during his training block. While some players find training a grind, Paganini has found ways to keep it motivating and challenging for Federer.
"Paganini is just an incredible mind and experiential coach," Federer’s former coach, Paul Annacone, told Eurosport in 2018.
"Pierre creates so many practical applications in terms of his training that he can keep it fun and interesting; new and lively; creative. It’s perfectly well suited to how Roger plays tennis. For Roger, what’s unique is how much he enjoys it after all these years – the smiles, the laughs, the drills, the hard work."
Roger Federer (L) of Switzerland talks with coach Paul Annacone
Image credit: Reuters
Federer gave an insight into his training in 2016 when he live streamed a pre-season session with Paganini and Ljubicic in Dubai. What was noticeable to start was the laughs and smiles between Federer and Paganini as they started tossing balls to each other – a routine they must have done a thousand times. Then it was Paganini directing the warm-ups before taking a back seat as Ljubicic took over the hitting drills.
While Federer has always been seen as a graceful and effortless player, he also works as hard behind the scenes as anyone else, perhaps even harder now as he looks to get back to the top of the game.
"I want to win big tournaments and beat the best players in the world," he told Numero Magazine last week. "I’m not coming back to play second rounds in the middle of nowhere. I feel like I know what I have to do to get there. It’s part dream and part logic, it’s a logical dream.
I’m working very hard even though I don’t talk about it much. I hope people understand how hard I work, otherwise I wouldn’t have made it this far.
Federer hasn’t won a clay title since Istanbul in 2015 and has only played at one of the last five French Opens. But there’s little doubt that he will be working hard over the clay season to put himself in the best position for a strong return this summer.
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