Analyzing Roger Federer’s decision to play on clay in 2019
When Roger Federer lost to Stefanos Tsitsipas in the last 16 of the Australian Open, he immediately announced his decision to play the clay-court season. Now this may indicate that the Swiss was using the clay-court as a fail-safe option to protect his ranking, going forward in other events.
Being a two-time defending champion in Australia meant he wasn’t able to defend the 2000 points accumulated from the 2018 win last year. Fearing the worst, Federer may have decided on impulse to play the clay-court stretch.
Any tournament appearances on clay, even mediocre performances would be enough to secure some much-needed ranking points for the Swiss.
He did drop to seven in the world and that’s why Federer may have been slightly worried that if he slipped out of the top 10, he would face harder draws in the future. The upshot of all this is that Federer may have surpassed his own expectations.
Since that defeat to Tsitsipas, Federer won his 100th career title in Dubai, beating the young Greek in the final. Federer then enjoyed a successful Indian Wells getting to the final before narrowly losing to Austria’s Dominic Thiem. The Swiss backed this up by winning the title in Miami and outclassing defending champion and an albeit slightly injured, John Isner, in straight sets.
So, if anything, Federer is much better off than what he was at this stage last year. His ranking points indicate the Swiss has actually improved.
Now at world number four, Federer will enjoy favourable draws and not meet the likes of Djokovic or Nadal until at least the semi-finals of any major tournaments he plays in.
Federer could even zoom back up to world number three as Alexander Zverev continues his disappointing start to the season.
In 2017 and 2018, Federer sat out the clay-court season, preferring to rest ahead of Wimbledon and the grass-court season. This worked in 2017 as Federer won at Halle and Wimbledon.
However, last year it left him short of match practice at Wimbledon. He won in Stuttgart for the first time, but surprisingly lost to Borna Coric in the final of Halle when aiming to win a record 10th title. At Wimbledon, he fell to Kevin Anderson in the quarter-finals after being two sets up.
So, choosing to play the Mutua Madrid Masters in May and at the French Open may have been Federer’s tactic to maintain his competitive match sharpness.
The obvious benefits are gaining crucial ranking points, meeting his large legion of fans in the European clay-court season and maybe even winning a clay-court title if Nadal falters. The Spaniard has been plagued by injuries the last 18 months, so it has opened the door for other players to possibly succeed on clay.
That said, Nadal is formidable on clay and is likely to sensationally play through any injuries he has to win his favourite tournaments.
All of this looks very promising for Federer who will celebrate the 10-year anniversary of his 2009 French Open triumph by appearing this year. That win also secured the Swiss a Career Slam of winning all four Majors.
There are potential downsides to Federer playing on clay, one of which is that the surface is tough on the knees and the body. It can take some players hours to recover from matches. Federer is 37 and at his age, will need to be careful with his body. He also has a history of bad knee and back injuries so the Swiss and his support team must be extra cautious.
The Swiss hasn’t played on clay for so long that it may take him a while to adjust to the surface. As talented as he is, Federer will not want to get bogged down in any long gruelling matches. This could have a detrimental effect in the long term on both his body and his expectations for the season.
Sitting out the clay-court season in 2017 benefited Federer immensely as he was able to win a record eighth Wimbledon title. He had a freshness and eagerness to win and be back on grass. Playing on clay this year may affect his chances of winning Wimbledon again.
If Federer chooses to play next season and at the Tokyo Olympics, he will have to look after his body and continue to carefully monitor his schedule. However, all in all, many fans can’t wait to see their Swiss hero back on clay and fingers crossed it will be another masterstroke decision by the 20-time Grand Slam champion.