Federer Set for Return to Clay but is he Past his Prime?

Roger Federer

Tennis fans around the world are delighted at the prospect of witnessing Roger Federer, 37, return to the clay surface at the Madrid Open in a little under three months’ time following an extended absence from the surface – his last clay appearance being the Italian Open in May 2016.

The Swiss moved away from playing on clay admitting that the reason was that he wanted to better manage his schedule. However, following his recent shock Australian Open defeat at the hands of Greek youngster Stefanos Tsitsipas, 20, it became apparent that the 20 time Grand Slam Champion was ready to get back on the red turf as he announced that he has ‘missed not doing it’.

Fans and pundits alike often talk about a weakness that the former world number one has when it comes to the clay surface but that’s somewhat of a misconception. After all he has got 11 clay court titles to his name and has appeared in a further 15 finals – 11 of which he lost to Rafael Nadal. In fact, was his record on other surfaces not so phenomenal we’d probably speak in much more glowing terms about his performances at tournaments such as the Mutua Madrid Open which he’s already conquered three times – first in 2006, then 2009 and, again, three years after that in 2012.

Federer is widely regarded as one of the greatest players of all time and having won more Grand Slams than any other male, reached the most finals, semi-finals and quarter-finals it’s difficult to argue it any other way. So, despite the excitement around his clay comeback why is there still a certain amount of doubt cast over his ability to produce anything like tournament winning tennis?

Cast your mind back to his last appearance in the Spanish capital where he was sent crashing out in the first round by Nick Kyrigos, add to that he’s not appeared on the surface for over two seasons and then, most recently, travel back a month to when Tsitsipas, who had only recently lost to Federer in the Hopman Cup, emerged victorious from a four-set duel with the experienced player looking someway off his inspired best.

Whilst Tsitsipas spoke afterwards about a dream come true having just defeated a man who he’d spent his entire youth looking up to, questions rightly arose about whether the victor, 17 years Federer’s junior, could be the next big thing. Is it the metaphorical passing of a torch or simply just another bump in the road for Federer?

Federer was looking for a third consecutive win in Oz – a record breaking seventh in total – but was instead left to rue missed opportunities, most notably his failure to capitalise on 12 break points. The good news is that he can put it all behind him quickly as he heads to Dubai to compete in the Duty Free Championships in the next few days before travelling to the United States, first to Indian Wells and then Miami.

That’s three competitions for Federer to rediscover top form ahead of his return to clay, where the world’s media will be tuned in to watch and analyse every stroke. Tournament director, Feliciano Lopez, has already branded the prospect of Federer, together with past winners Nadal and Novak Djokovic, ‘unmissable’ and it’s hard to dispute.

Throughout the peaks and troughs, if you can call them that, of Federer’s career one thing is for sure and that’s the fact he’s always handled himself with the utmost class, which was again evident in his latest defeat where he backed his opponent to go on to great things in the game.

There is an old saying; form is temporary, but class is permanent. If he can get anywhere close to his best form, then, when May comes, don’t rule out Federer holding aloft yet another trophy on the sun-baked clay of Madrid.