Apart from the surprise defeat in the 4th Round, the big news from the Australian Open for Fed fans was Roger saying that he plans to play the clay-court season after skipping it for two successive years.
He revealed to French Press after the Tsitsipas loss that he has “missed not doing it” and doesn't feel like he needs a long break this year like the past two seasons. That break worked peRFectly in 2017, but less so in 2018.
In an ideal world, Roger could surely have gone best of three and to see if the skipping clay method worked this season too. But at 37 and time not on his side, he's rolled the dice and decided to give the red stuff a whirl.
Is it a good idea? Assuming there are no problems physically I think it could be. The big caveat here is there's no guarantee he will play just yet, after Miami he'll head back to Switzerland for some training on the clay and if all goes well then a tournament before the French Open will surely get the green light.
The reason I say it's not guaranteed is I remember his fitness coach Pierre Paganini saying the clay surface is very different for the knee due to the looseness of the surface and sliding so I'd imagine any sort of doubts would put paid to the idea. However, that injury is well in the past and his coach Severin Luthi told Swiss press this week the plan is to play at least one event before Roland Garros so Roger and his team must feel confident.
Is Clay An Opportunity for Federer to ‘Go For Broke'?
One of the keys to success for Federer in 2017 was the so-called ‘neo backhand' which was essentially playing more aggressively on that wing especially on the return. The main reason he beat Nadal in that epic Australian Open final was he finally had the courage of his convictions to go after the return.
The 2018 season saw a drop off in that area and in some ways a return to normality with point starting chip returns and an all-around more passive approach.
This was further highlighted in the Tstisipas match where Roger had 12 break points but didn't convert a single one and conservative returning played a part in recording that career-worst statistic.
After Roger's Wimbledon loss last season, fellow Swiss Marc Rosset wrote a piece for Les Temps titled Roger Federer doit redevenir le chasseur which translates to Roger Federer must become the hunter again.
It was the best article I have read on Federer in a long time as it was practical and not just some sycophantic piece about how amazing Federer that tells you absolutely nothing ?. The key takeaway from the column is below:
I think the more the years go by and the more he will have to put himself in the shoes of the challenger, not the champion who must absolutely win. So far, he has often been out because he was stronger physically, he was confident, he still had that little bit of genius, but I'm not sure it's enough now. Before, he could win a grand slam without taking too much risk; he no longer has this margin in relation to these rivals. He has to take more risks, and so what if sometimes it does not happen. He would relax a little bit the brain to demand less of it.
I think it was spot on then and maybe even more so now as a return to clay gives Roger the chance to play like the underdog again.
Roger hasn't played a clay tournament since the 2016 Italian Open, he hasn't won a Masters 1000 on red clay since 2009, and only has 3 wins against Top 10 opposition since 2013. So expectations have to be very low and this could be a good thing.
I wrote an article in 2012 asking if Federer could employ Henman like tactics to have success at the French Open which looked at how the Brit made the semi-finals in Paris in 2004 with zero pedigree on clay, showcasing that you can do things differently and have success. Who would have thought six years on that blog post would become relevant again 😀 .
The reason it's relevant is that, like Henman, there is absolutely no way Federer can play classic clay court tennis and be successful.
In 2012 Roger could just about get away with it, but in 2018 there are at least 10, 15 maybe even 20 players that will pick Roger off easily if they slug it out from the baseline. So he has to change it up and to steal a line from Rosset, become the hunter again.
Federer has to come in with a hyper-aggressive mindset and even if it doesn't pay off with brilliant results, that mindset might just trickle over to the grass and hard courts when he needs it most.
What do you guys think of Federer's clay court decision? Which events will he play? Mickey Carlo, Barcelona, Estoril, Madrid, Rome or Geneva? There's a lot to choose from. Let me know in the comments.