After nearly a year and a half away, Roger Federer will finally appear at a Grand Slam again. The 20-time champion announced in a tweet on Sunday that he would be playing in this year’s French Open, which starts on 30 May. He will also play in the preceding ATP 250 Geneva Open, in his home country, as preparation.
Happy to let you know that I will play Geneva🇨🇭 and Paris 🇫🇷. Until then I will use the time to train. Can’t wait to play in Switzerland again. ❤️🚀
— Roger Federer (@rogerfederer) April 18, 2021
In his illustrious, record-breaking Grand Slam career, the French Open has been his bête noire. A five-time finalist, he simply couldn’t get past the muscle rippling, forehand whirring, top-spin tricking demi-God that is Rafa Nadal. Until the one year Robin Soderling did him the favour of a lifetime and eliminated his nemesis in the fourth round, meaning he could finally complete a career Grand Slam of all four titles.
In the last few injury-plagued years, Federer has barely played at Roland Garros, having taken a three-year hiatus between 2016 and 2019. Upon his return, he stated his dream was to beat Nadal on the clay. It was rather like a park player proclaiming their dream was to beat Roger at Wimbledon, such was the improbability of it. So it transpired as Federer lost to him yet again in a dishearteningly one-sided semi-final.
That was his last appearance. Two knee operations since and the pandemic combined meant he has not played in a Grand Slam since January 2020. He made a low-key return to action at the Qatar Open in Doha last month, but will not participate in any of the big clay-court tournaments until his sole appearance at the Geneva Open on 16 May.
Naturally, at 39-years of age, and after such a long absence from Grand Slam competition, the expectations will be low – at least from onlookers – but Federer will, no doubt, want to use his presence at Roland Garros to regain his match fitness and reacquaint himself with the intense pressure of top-level competition, ahead of Wimbledon. The hallowed green turf of SW19 remains Roger’s spiritual home and represents his best chance of Grand Slam success.
Roger’s travails at the French Open are frequently used against him in the ongoing GOAT (greatest of all time) debate that rages amongst die-hard tennis fans, but it has always been notoriously difficult for fast-court players to transfer their diametrically opposing game to the slowest surface in tennis.
Some of the best players of the past have missed out on completing the career Slam due to their inability to capture that elusive clay-court title. Pete Sampras, the Grand Slam record-holder (14), prior to the ascent of the big three, failed even to get to a final, as did Boris Becker (6). Stefan Edberg (6) did get to a final and came within two games of winning, but lost out eventually in five sets to teenage sensation Michael Chang.
Other notable serve and volleyers to fail at the final hurdle were John McEnroe (7) and 1991 Wimbledon champion, Michael Stich.
In fact, Rod Laver is the only out and out serve and volleyer to complete the career Slam in the Open era. He won all four Grand Slams in 1969 for a second time, having done so previously in 1962 as an amateur. The only other serve and volley player to win Roland Garros was Ken Rosewall, at the inaugural Open-era championship in 1968. (It is one of the great ironies in tennis that Rosewall, a masterful exponent of the style, didn’t achieve the career Slam because he couldn’t win Wimbledon!)
Although Roger is no longer the serve and volleyer of his youth, his attacking game remains most potent on faster surfaces. That he has been so successful in an era which has never favoured his style of play is a testament to his genius.
As Federer prepares to return to the place where he has garnered the least success, and where he is unlikely to satiate his one unfulfilled ambition – to defeat Rafa Nadal – it begs the question that had the speed of the courts favoured him at Wimbledon as they do Nadal at Roland Garros, might he not have won as many Wimbledons as Rafa has French Opens?
Perhaps, in an alternate universe, there is a Wimbledon where the grass courts have stayed fast, and it is Rafa who is desperately trying to beat Roger for that one elusive Wimbledon to complete a career Grand Slam.