Let me say this first: tennis without an audience still sucks. The crowd is such an essential element to the sport, and without it, it just doesn’t feel whole. That’s particularly true when any of the Big Three plays on the center court. Which is what Roger Federer did on Saturday night for nearly four hours.
He faced Dominic Koepfer for the first time and had to fight hard to beat the German in four sets (7–6(5), 6–7(3), 7–6(4), 7–5). I don’t doubt it was the type of match Federer needed to regain confidence and test what his body can take at thirty-nine years old. But that’s just it: there’s a limit and risk involved at this age, especially after two knee surgeries. He has to play his cards right if he wants to be a serious competitor in the grass-court season.
So after consulting with his team, Federer decided to pull out of the French Open and give himself more time to prepare for Halle.
I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s a little disappointed not seeing how deep Roger could’ve gone on clay this year. But it was the right decision to withdraw. Realistically, Federer isn’t quite ready to compete with Djokovic or Nadal on the level he used to. He knows it, and we know it. This surface was never his strong suit, to begin with, so the risk/reward ratio just simply isn’t worth the effort.
Last week, he played and won three matches here. Those definitely toughened his game up and helped him adjust to the new protocol and pace the sport demands right now. But as he gets closer to forty, there’s a lot to consider of how he wants to finish his career — perhaps at the end of this year. He wants to go out in a classy manner with the best results possible.
If he never plays again in Paris, at least he can say that his last run at the Roland Garros was successful and ended on his terms.
The match against Koepfer was great to draw conclusions, though. It was a testament of Federer’s fighting spirit — which might not have the same intensity as before — but it’s still there when it matters the most. Without an audience, we saw a looser Roger who had no trouble commenting on his poor shots and boosts himself loudly when he needed to step up his game. He was mentally solid and found the right buttons to push after he lost the second set and had to come back from behind in the third. In the final set, he had some momentum going, and after breaking the German, he managed to serve out the match.
It’s clear that his form isn’t at the level he intends to reach — particularly when it comes to his serve — but I’m confident he’ll get there by the time Wimbledon rolls around. There’s such a precise and smartly calculated strategy behind his every move. In the back of his mind, he always focuses on long-term performance rather than pushing himself too hard, which might hurt his chances.
After the match, Federer said he doesn’t have that comforting feeling — which Djokovic and Nadal have — if he plays well, he knows he’s winning. He also added that these matches are stepping stones for the rest of the season — and for a successful comeback like the one he had in 2017.
As of yesterday, he has decided to withdraw from further matches in Paris and gave himself a longer period to prepare for the grass-court season. It’s been no secret that his priority is Wimbledon this year, and I’m sure he’ll take every chance to give his best performance. I hope we’ll get to see a vintage Roger Federer in London one last time, giving his everything to the sport he elevated for over twenty years.