French Open 2019: Unburdened Federer has a free hit on Roland Garros return

By Tom Webber 25 May 2019 239
French Open 2019: Unburdened Federer has a free hit on Roland Garros return

Being one of the greatest players in the history of tennis brings with it consistently high expectations.

Roger Federer's 20 major titles are unparalleled in the men's game, as are his cumulative 310 weeks spent at the top of the rankings – 237 of which came in succession from February 2, 2004 until August 17, 2008.

The Swiss, now 37 and wise to the impact the rigours of the Tour has on his ageing body, has managed his schedule in recent seasons to enable him to continue competing at the extraordinary levels he set after winning his first grand slam 16 years ago.

He branded taking part at Roland Garros in 2016 an "unnecessary fitness risk" as he struggled with knee and back problems and, never hiding his preference for grass and hard courts, he has not returned until now.

His decision to skip the clay-court swing in 2017 paid dividends in the form of a record eighth Wimbledon title, but after a surprise fourth-round loss to Stefanos Tsitsipas at this year's Australian Open Federer confirmed he would finally be back playing on clay.

"I'm in a phase where I want to have fun. It's a bit of desire. I don't feel it is necessary to have a big break again," said Federer at Melbourne Park.

Fun is exactly what Federer can have at the French Open this year.

Rafael Nadal's dominance of the tournament – the 'King of Clay' is gunning for his 12th title at Roland Garros this year – and Novak Djokovic's incredible resurgence, which could see him hold all four grand slams at the same time for the second time in his career, means they are the overwhelming favourites for success.

For once, Federer, who returns on the 10-year anniversary of the first and only time he got his hands on La Coupe des Mousquetaires, goes into a major without the pressure to succeed that typically accompanies an all-time great.

Clay-court specialist Dominic Thiem and Tsitsipas are favoured more than Federer - who is in the same side of the draw as Nadal - by many bookmakers, while Alexander Zverev is considered to have a similar chance of success as the Swiss.

His odds were unlikely to be helped by a right leg injury that forced him to withdraw from an Internazionali d'Italia quarter-final against Tsitsipas, but Federer had to play two matches in a day 24 hours prior, the second of which went to a third-set tie-break against Borna Coric.

Asked if he can win the French Open, Federer replied: "I don't know. [It's] a bit of a question mark for me. In some ways I feel similar to the Australian Open in 2017 - a bit of the unknown.

"I feel like I'm playing good tennis, but is it enough or is it enough against the absolute top guys when it really comes to the crunch? I'm not sure if it's in my racket.

"But I hope I can get myself in that position deep down in the tournament against the top guys."

On his condition, he added: "Being healthy is really key at this stage of my career, and the last time I have been really badly injured has been basically Montreal two years ago almost.

"I'm very happy [with] how my body has been. There has always been little things going on, like in Rome, but that was also precautionary. I wanted to make sure I was 100 per cent going to be able to play the French Open."

While another icon of the sport Serena Williams continues to struggle with the stresses of matching Margaret Court's all-time record of 24 grand slam titles, Federer arrives at Roland Garros in an environment where he has no such burdens to contend with.

The stage is set for Federer to play with freedom and in an impressive physical state. Regardless of the outcome, his desire for fun will no doubt be satisfied in Paris.

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Tom Webber

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