Welcome to Tennis Elbow, the column that looks back on the week that was in the world of tennis. This week, Charles Blouin-Gascon recaps the latest in men’s tennis.
Roger Federer made the right decision.
Ultimately, that’s the only possible conclusion here. After playing three matches at the French Open, including a tough fourth-set win against Dominik Koepfer, the Swiss must have understood what was clear from the start: he would have been absolutely overmatched against either Novak Djokovic or Rafael Nadal on clay, so what would have been the point of continuing on?
When you’re 39 years old, soon-to-be 40, why exert more energy than you need to on a doomed cause when you could just regroup and try again tomorrow? When you could try again on a playing surface better suited for your game?
The GOAT debate rages on…but does it include Federer?
Suddenly, the title of greatest of all time, which not all that long ago seemed Federer’s to lose, looks to be fast slipping through his fingers. Suddenly, the man with the perfect and most gorgeous game is in danger of falling to No. 3 on the all-time Grand Slam list.
That’s what Sunday’s Roland-Garros final made crystal clear: his main two rivals remain unfettered and as dangerous as they’ve ever been.
When Novak Djokovic captured a second French Open win against Rafael Nadal, and then a second Coupe des Mousquetaires in Paris, he was adding yet another standout entry to his resume. Nadal, meanwhile, will apparently compete for the French Open title until his dying breath. Until he proves to us that he isn’t, he will remain the most formidable force on clay and, as such, on track to add a major title to his resume every year.
Federer’s ongoing status quo
On his end, Federer must beat Father Time. If nothing else, we know that he’s currently No. 1 on the all-time Grand Slam titles list—but even there, he’s only levelled with Nadal. Otherwise, Federer’s two biggest rivals have equalled or surpassed most of his accomplishments.
More and more, he has to hold on to the Grand Slams career count to have any chance at becoming the best of all time. Because he doesn’t have the weeks at No. 1 record anymore. He doesn’t have a winning head-to-head record against both rivals anymore. Exceedingly, Federer has very little to pull him ahead: he has the 20 majors, which may not be enough for long, and he has the 103 career titles, which is basically just a longevity mark.
Knowing this, with Nadal at 20 major titles and Djokovic right on their heels at 19, it’s paramount for Federer to enter Wimbledon this year fully healthy and prepared. Withdrawing from Roland-Garros in the first week was as much about this as it was about preserving his body. And maybe, just maybe, he will get to grab major No. 21.
Everything has broken right for Federer
Ultimately, the Swiss may not get another better shot at adding to his resume and legacy than he will at the end of the month. The pandemic has protected Federer’s ranking as the Swiss is somehow still ranked No. 8 despite barely playing any matches since February of last year. He was injured, but the pandemic rendered the impact of his injury null. He’s been blessed by the gods.
Of course, it all could be for naught. Federer has yet to win a Grand Slam title in over three years and, as we saw at the 2019 Wimbledon final, his best might still not be enough. These days, he needs to play his best and hope for the right breaks to have a good chance.
For all we know, Djokovic could pull level at 20 Grand Slams at Wimbledon, then overtake Nadal and Federer late in the summer at the US Open to complete the calendar Grand Slam. Or maybe it’s Nadal who could step up again and win a whopping fifth US Open title to get ahead with a 21st career major title. Then next year, Djokovic could add another Australian Open title, and Nadal another French Open title, and Federer would be left in the dust.
But thinking so far ahead is counterproductive for Federer. He’s quickly become the clear third wheel in this race to the top but he has a chance to pull ahead, if only momentarily. And he made the right decision to make the most of this opportunity.
Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG