Becoming an all-time great tennis player takes skill and talent, but it also takes a little luck, and the current tennis break is a big break for Roger Federer.
The last time we saw Federer, he wasn’t looking so good. Hobbled by a groin injury, Novak Djokovic rolled over him in the Australian Open semifinals. The match before that, world No. 100 Tennys Sandgren held seven match points against him. Two matches before that, journeyman John Millman was two points away from knocking him out of the tournament in the Round of 32. But it gets worse; Federer announced he needed knee surgery in late February and wouldn’t play again until the grass-court season. One Swiss newspaper voiced what most of us in the tennis community were already thinking: could this be the beginning of the end for the world No 3.
Then came the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, and the tennis world stopped with the rest of professional sports. Let’s be clear: no professional player in any sport wanted a truncated season, even an injured player. And Federer’s been on the front-line in terms of financial assistance worldwide, donating more than a million dollars to help support his “most vulnerable” Swiss compatriots through the coronavirus crisis.
But let’s be honest: the hiatus in professional athletics affects players across all major sports in meaningful ways; some good, some bad. And no tennis fan can truly deny Roger Federer is one of the lucky ones. A stress-free healing period, the ATP point freeze, the tennis “reset” button over the summer–and possibly an extended break–all adds up to one big break for Roger Federer.
Stress-Free Healing Break
This isn’t the first time Roger Federer’s taken a break from tennis. The other time was three years ago; five months after knee surgery (his other knee) and a couple of months after back problems forced him out of the French Open. This is what he said about that six-month break:
“To have had this six-month layoff, rejuvenated, refreshed… maybe mentally I needed this rest more than I thought I would. Maybe my body needed a rest more than I thought it would. I tried to look at the big picture, I hope it’s going to pay off.”
Federer turned pro in 1998; 22 years on the ATP tour takes its toll. Taking some time away from the courts to heal both his body and mind payed dividends over the next three years. After not winning a tournament in 2016–a first in his career–he came back to win three more Slams and a total of 11 titles.
He said the previous break was “very beneficial for the future of my tennis career.” This break should be too, especially considering he doesn’t have to worry about his points dropping with the current ATP point freeze.
ATP Points Freeze
Federer’s decision to have surgery came with a price: a drop in the rankings. Fundamentally, the ranking system in tennis is simple: players earn points depending on how well they do in a tournament. Then, they must defend those points in the following year’s tournament. To stay on top–well, you have to stay on top.
And Federer was on top. He was the defending champion in Dubai and Miami; reached the final in Indian Wells; made it the semifinals at Roland Garros. After the “0-pointers” for missing those tournaments, Federer was set to drop 2,680 of his 6,630 points, which would have left him at the lower end of the Top 10.
Another important aspect of the points ranking system is this: tournament seeding directly reflects a player’s ranking (the major exception being Wimbledon). That was going to be a big problem for Federer. Last year he won the Halle Open, adding 500 points to his ranking total in the process. The prospect of winning Halle again as a lower seed in his first tournament after knee surgery would have been a tall order. Worse, a poor showing at Halle might affect his Wimbledon seeding as well.
The points freeze changed all that. Now Federer will have one of the top four seeds at Halle, as well as one of the top seeds at Wimbledon, due to the tournament’s unique seeding system. As a player who’s become a global icon in part because of his ability to take advantage of break opportunities, this turn of events has the potential to not only change the course of his season, but his entire career as well.
Tennis Break Equals Tennis Reset
The first ATP500 event after the suspension of professional tennis through June 7th is the Halle Open, which happens to coincide with Federer’s planned return to tennis. Now it’s not just Federer’s return to tennis; it’s basically every professional player’s return to tennis. Even the men playing the week before in one of the two ATP250 events will only have a one-week head start.
Federer “actually enjoyed” his time off three years ago, and came back stronger as a result of it. But the same might not be true for every player on the tour. At least one writer has speculated that top ranking players may have more to lose psychologically than their struggling counterparts ranked in the top 30s, 50s or even 100s. We know this won’t be the case for Federer, who said he benefited from the mental break as much as the physical one during his last layoff.
A quick scroll through #TennisAtHome makes one point clear: most players aren’t engaged in any type of serious training or physical conditioning–at least not as of yet–instead choosing to pass their time with games with toilet paper rolls or cleaver racket play. Some are spending time with family, which is understandable. However, there’s a glaring absence of any mention of on-court training time. I assume most players could book a private court. Most of top players probably have one in their own back yard. Yet, players seem to be staying away from the courts. I believe that will show come June.
That’s great news for Federer. Again, everyone’s starting over, not just him. He’ll be tuning up his game and working on his tournament stamina along with all the other players on the tour. And with all things being equal, that just might make him the favorite to win both Halle and Wimbledon. If that happens, this will turn out to be the biggest break of his career.
What happens if Wimbledon is cancelled? One online source is reporting that Wimbledon officials are set to make that announcement Wednesday, stating that the grass-court events preceding it have already been called off. That, of course, would be an unfortunate break for Federer, who has a legitimate shot at winning the All England Club’s celebrated tournament. But it’s not as dire as one U.S. newspaper is claiming, stating that “for tennis fans, and particularly anyone who wants to see Federer and Williams have one more great chance to win it, time isn’t on their side.”
In this case, time is on Federer’s side. Assuming the tennis season resumes in August, his first scheduled tournament is the Cincinnati Masters, slated to begin in mid-August. That means a six-month layoff for Federer, and we already know how rejuvenated and refreshed he felt after his last six-month layoff period.
This extra time could go a long way in helping him finish off 2020 strong, then set him up for a solid run in 2021. At 38, Federer doesn’t have years left in his career; but, as the world No. 3 player, he does have at least one good year left. Extra time should only help him make the most of it. What could be seen as a bad break–the likely cancellation of Wimbledon–may just end up being the breakthrough his career needs in its twilight years.
Breaks Mean Wins
Winning tennis players capitalize on their break opportunities throughout a match. Iconic tennis players capitalize on their break opportunities throughout their career. Roger Federer didn’t ask for this break–and nobody could have predicted it–but that’s one of the factors that’s made him an all-time great: luck. He gets the bounces; he hits the line-clippers; and he catches the most breaks. And this break should go a long way towards cementing his already-legendary status.
Now he just needs to hold serve, and if anyone can do it, it’s Roger Federer.
Roger Federer Main Photo: