Sport in 2020 has been, not to put too fine a point on it, weird.
Roger Federer has amassed the most grand slams in the history of open-era tennis.
Federer has shattered most of the biggest records on offer – think of benchmarks like the number of weeks as world number one or most Wimbledon titles in the history of the sport. He has continually pushed the boundaries of what we think a tennis player is capable of achieving, and his wizardry with the racquet in hand is a beautiful sight to behold.
But the one surface he hasn’t truly mastered is the red dirt, and that’s mainly because Rafael Nadal, the king of clay, has stopped him so many times while the pair have been in their prime. So when Federer stopped playing clay-court tennis over the last two seasons, it was seen by many tennis observers as a sign he had given up on winning big titles on the unique surface.
He’d had a disappointing final six months in 2018 with a number of close losses from winning positions, clearly frustrating him and his fans. He had to try something different and return to a more all-surface schedule. He wasn’t going to be able to get enough matches in his body to challenge for more grand slam success.
Others saw it as a sign that Federer would farewell the Italian and French crowds one last time before calling it a day. While I don’t see this happening, the argument is there to be made that Federer has been the form player of the season since the Australian Open
He has since won his 100th and 101st titles, beating Stefanos Tsitsipas and John Isner in Dubai and Miami while losing to Dominic Thiem in a close Indian Wells final. So why would he quit when he’s still such a dominant force? He is just 125 points behind Novak Djokovic in the race to London, and Nadal has suffered a huge drop off so far this clay season. So if he’s feeling healthy and in form, why not hit the clay and see if he can pick up a few extra points?
His rivals don’t seem as consistent and the younger generation hasn’t truly arrived yet. If he can scrap together, say, between 1000 and 1200 points this season on clay, he may get that all-important No. 2 seed for Wimbledon, which I’m sure would be a massive motivation. He doesn’t want to run the risk of playing Djokovic before the final, and right now he would fancy playing Nadal on grass.
So he and his team have chosen to play Madrid and Roland Garros, which have been historically his two most successful clay events. It’s a smart move. In Madrid he is a six-time champion and at Roland Garros he’s a four-time finalist and a winner in 2009.
He has come into this part of the season with low expectations but high hopes that he can be competitive. His new aggressive game could surprise a lot of people in the high altitude of Madrid, while he has the potential to make a quarter-final appearance at Roland Garros if his draw opens up.
And we are talking about Roger Federer. The man has made a career of proving everyone wrong. He was meant to be done after 2008, and then he went and won the French Open. He was supposedly finished again in 2010, but two years later he beat Djokovic and Andy Murray to win Wimbledon. At the Aussie open two years ago he was done a third time, yet he got over Rafa in the final.
It wouldn’t surprise me if he won the French Open again, and nor should it surprise anyone else.