Roger Federer has confirmed he will make his return next month in Doha and will then play on clay before his main goals of Halle, Wimbledon, the Olympics and the US Open.
The 20-time Grand Slam champion has been out of action for a year after undergoing two knee operations.
He is not playing at the Australian Open - which begins on February 8 - for the first time in 23 years and says the decision “hurt”, but he needed more time.
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"I thought long and hard about when and where to come back,” he told SRF. “Australia was still a bit too early because of my knee.
"That hurts; it's one of the places where I like to play the most.”
Instead of Melbourne, Federer will make his comeback at the ATP 250 in Doha starting on March 8.
"I wanted to make my comeback at a smaller tournament, so as not to be fully in the spotlight, and where the stress is also a little less,” said Federer, who has won the tournament three times.
"I‘m not at 100 per cent, but close to there, that‘s why I‘m confident to come back. I feel strong, better than in November and December, when there were a lot more insecurities. I do my sprints, play the sets, I haven’t had any setbacks over the last six months and that‘s very positive."
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After Doha there is a chance Federer will stay in the Middle East to play in the ATP 500 in Dubai, which begins on March 15. Then there’s the first ATP Masters event of the season in Miami on March 24.
He said: "Depending on how things go in Doha, I'll play another tournament. Otherwise I'll go back to an additional training block with tennis and fitness, and then I'll try to play on clay again.
The whole thing, of course, with focus on Halle, Wimbledon, the Olympics and the US Open.
The decision to return to clay is somewhat surprising given Federer has only played on the surface for one of the last four years. Matches on clay also tend to be more physical and longer, not necessarily what 39-year-old Federer is looking for at this stage of his career.
Roger Federer bei den French Open
Image credit: Getty Images
And it’s clear from his comments that this comeback is going to be led by his body.
He says he does not want to “pathologically stay on the tour” to the detriment of his health and future activities with his wife Mirka and their four children.
"I won't play tournaments just because. If the body doesn’t work, I'll stop," he said.
"I want to be able to go skiing with the children and with Mirka. Or go hiking, play basketball or start ice hockey - I still have so many dreams. For that I need a good body and I don’t want to hit it against the wall."
Is this a farewell tour?
Halle. Wimbledon. The Olympics. The US Open.
At 39 – 40 by the time the US Open rolls around – will this be the last time that Federer plays four of his favourite tournaments?
If so, he will be carefully managing his schedule to ensure he is in the best possible condition for each of them.
Halle is set to take place on June 14, with Wimbledon on June 28, the Olympics in Tokyo on July 27 and then the US Open on August 30.
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After going through a year of rehab, Federer will be eager to play at all four events, but it will be fascinating to see how fit he is by the summer and whether he can compete with the best on tour.
"I like to play tennis for life. In the last few months I have given a lot in rehab, in the conditioning area. I had to go to the bottom in the last few months, but I always enjoyed it and had a great team around me. Now is the time to try again.
"I want to celebrate great victories again. And for that I am ready to go the long, hard road."
He also admitted he followed the sport more than he thought he would while away from the court.
"I actually thought that I would not follow the sport very much and would be more busy with my children and my rehab.
"I was surprised that I kept checking results and watching matches. And normally I don't do that at all if I don't take part in a tournament."
Analysis – Enjoy this year of Federer
This may not be Roger Federer’s final year on tour – but it seems to be heading that way.
His talk of all the focus being on Halle, Wimbledon, the Olympics, and the US Open, plus a potential farewell to Roland Garros, suggests 2021 might be it for the 20-time Grand Slam champion.
If it is goodbye then hopefully he goes out on a high.
He appears to have given himself a good chance of that after taking plenty of time off and not rushing his comeback at the Australian Open. However, only time will tell how his body will react, and despite his claim that he is returning in Doha where he won’t be “fully in the spotlight”, all eyes will be on him to see how he performs.
In an unpredictable year there’s a chance Federer could do something special, but he needs his body to comply.
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