Roger Federer assured on Sunday that his decision to play on the clay this season for the first time since 2016 does not mean that he is treating 2019 as his farewell tour.
When the Swiss announced at the Australian Open – following his fourth round exit to Stefanos Tsitsipas – that he has opted to play clay tournaments this spring, speculation immediately arose surrounding the motivation behind Federer’s decision.
Panic struck among his fans, who assumed Federer’s return to the red dirt meant that he wanted to make sure he would play Roland Garros for one last time before he retired.
But the 37-year-old, who is the No. 2 seed at this week’s Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, insists that is not the case.
“No, it’s not. I thought of it, in isolation, do I want to play the clay or not? The answer was yes,” Federer told reporters in Dubai ahead of Monday’s first-round clash against Philipp Kohlschreiber (19:00 local time).
“This doesn’t mean this is my last clay-court season, whatever, or I had to play one more time before I retired. That was not the thinking.
“All I knew is after missing it for two to three years basically, my body was ready, I was ready, my schedule with the family, my schedule with the team was ready to do it again. This is when I opted to say, ‘It will be nice’.
“Instead of taking a big chunk off, I’d rather stay in the rhythm and actually enjoy myself on the clay.”
Federer has not played at the French Open since he lost in the quarter-finals there in 2015. He was injured and withdrew from the Parisian Slam in 2016 and he skipped the clay swing altogether in 2017 and 2018.
“It’s going to be challenging, no doubt about it. I have to take baby steps in the beginning to some extent, but that’s okay,” said Federer, who has already confirmed that he will be playing the Madrid Open prior to Roland Garros this May.
“I think after not playing for two years, also missing the French three years ago because of injury, I think the team understood that I was in the mood to do it again,” he added.
“I did grow up on clay, after all. I felt like my body is strong enough now again to do the surface changes from hard to clay to grass to hard again. In the past I felt different. I felt like it would be nice to go from hard to grass to hard, stay on faster surfaces.”
Federer will be gunning for a 100th career title when he takes to the courts in Dubai this week. He has played just one official tournament so far in 2019 and it ended with him losing in four sets to 20-year-old Tsitsipas, who saved 13/13 break points to end the Swiss’ title defence in Melbourne.
“I still felt like I played okay. It wasn’t like a horrible tournament for me. Played great at the Hopman Cup. I played good actually all matches. I just messed up on some big, big points. I’m not going to change my game because I missed out on some opportunities,” said Federer, reflecting on his Australian Open campaign.
Federer’s route to a possible 100th crown is likely to be a difficult one, with the likes of Fernando Verdasco, Milos Raonic, Karen Khachanov, Tomas Berdych and Borna Coric all in his half of the draw.
The 20-time Grand Slam champion clinched his 99th trophy in Basel last September and lost in the three tournaments he has contested since (Paris Masters, ATP Finals in London, Australian Open).
He is aware of the big milestone that awaits him but is taking a ‘it’ll happen when it happens’ approach to it.
“I think that’s got to be the mindset, that you try your best every match, every week anyway. Things fall into place or they don’t. It’s not because of lack of effort,” said Federer.
“We’ve been talking about 99 titles ever since Basel, every tournament I’ve played. There’s nothing new. Of course, coming to Dubai where I’ve enjoyed a lot of success sort of makes you believe maybe it could happen here. Then again, draw is tough. Haven’t played in a few weeks so you reset everything, get ready for your first round, hope everything is going to click again here in Dubai.
“It’s going to be tough. Look, I hope we can have this conversation in a few days’ time and see what happens.”