Roger Federer’s summer plans are shaping up. Geneva to Paris to Halle to London to Tokyo. Two clay-court tournaments followed by two on grass – maybe three depending how he fares at Roland-Garros – and then hard courts for the Olympics.
It’s not a schedule that suggests clay is a big priority for him this year. It hasn’t really been for a while – he’s only played Roland-Garros once in the last five years and hasn’t won a clay title since Istanbul in 2015.
So will, as his former coach Paul Annacone suggests, Federer still be one of the contenders in Paris next month?
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"Other than Novak [Djokovic] and Rafa [Nadal], and probably [Dominic] Thiem, although you don’t know the way he is feeling right now, are there really a lot of other people you’re putting ahead of Roger at Roland-Garros?" asked Annacone on the Tennis Channel.
Annacone, who coached Pete Sampras for seven years before working with Federer for three years, reasoned that "I find it really hard to believe that a player that great is going to a tournament not thinking or hoping they can win. I don’t see it, from the time I spent with Roger and Sampras I don’t remember them ever going anywhere where they are not trying to win. Even Sampras at the French."
Sampras, a 14-time Grand Slam champion, never won the French Open, and only once came close during his time with Annacone when he reached the semi-finals in 1996. In his next six appearances he only made it past the second round once as he struggled to really get to grips with clay. Federer has a far better record than Sampras at Roland-Garros, making the final five times, winning it once in 2009, and reaching the semis on his last appearance in 2019.
But he has only played two competitive matches in the last 14 months, making his return after a lengthy injury lay-off in Doha in early March and not playing since.
By the time that Roland-Garros rolls around next month there’s a chance that he might only have played one match on clay this season. Would that still be enough to put him as one of the top four or five favourites ahead of Stefanos Tsitsipas and Andrey Rublev, who made the final in Monte Carlo last week, or Diego Schwartzman, Matteo Berrettini and Roberto Bautista Agut? Or Jannik Sinner? The latter four are unlikely to win the tournament, but surely all would give Federer a very stern test on clay right now.
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The value of match practice was shown at the Monte-Carlo Masters as Tsitsipas and Rublev, the two players with the most wins on tour this season, made the final. Djokovic and Nadal, having not played since the Australian Open in February, failed to make the semi-finals. Nadal even admitted this week at the Barcelona Open that he needs "time on court" as he looks to get back to top form. Federer is in a similar position, but with an even greater need of time on court.
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Despite his lack of preparation, former world No 5 Jimmy Arias agreed with Annacone that Federer is "probably still the third or fourth best player in the world on clay right now…Roger is in the mix, you can’t count him out."
It will be fascinating to hear from Federer about his approach to Roland-Garros when he returns to action in Geneva, which starts in mid-May. He suggested after his defeat in Doha that he was using the clay season to build up match fitness – "I have no choice but to play on clay if I want to play matches" – but also said recently that he is not going to play just to make up the numbers.
"I want to win big tournaments and beat the world's best players. I'm not coming back to play second rounds in the middle of nowhere."
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Perhaps clay is almost a necessary evil for Federer this year; without it he would go to grass without any extra match practice. And, given his ranking is still inside the top 10 in the world, the draws at Geneva and Roland-Garros should mean he will get to play at least a few matches.
But will he really make it to the latter stages of the French Open?
It would be a remarkable achievement considering clay is his weakest surface (0.761 win per cent compared to 0.874 on grass and 0.835 on hard), he will have had very little competitive preparation ahead of the tournament, and he has hardly played Roland-Garros over the last five years.
What seems most likely is that, as Jim Courier put it, clay will be “the appetiser and Wimbledon the main course”. But is there a chance the appetiser will be tastier than the main course on this occasion?
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