When Roger Federer returned to the ATP Tour in Doha in March, having been out for 13 months following two knee operations, he made one thing clear: His goal was Wimbledon.
At 39, the Swiss is focused on the place where he has the best chance for glory: the grass at Wimbledon, where short points and his unrivaled experience mean a ninth title is not out of the question.
So when Federer announced on Sunday he withdrew from Roland-Garros — after first opening the door to that possibility in his news conference following his third-round win over Dominik Koepfer — it was no real surprise.
“After two knee surgeries and over a year of rehabilitation, it’s important that I listen to my body and make sure I don’t push myself too quickly on my road to recovery,” Federer said in a statement. “I am thrilled to have gotten 3 matches under my belt. There is no greater feeling than being back on court.”
For Roland-Garros, Federer’s withdrawal is an undeniable blow. The 20-time Grand Slam champion is the ultimate draw, the man everyone wants to see.
But because of his age, Federer has to be selfish at this stage of his career. If he’s going to have a chance at Wimbledon, he needs to be 100%. No man over the age of 35 has won Wimbledon — Federer was 35 when he became its oldest champion in 2017, so the enormity of his task is obvious.
Coming off two arthroscopic right knee surgeries, what Federer wanted out of Roland-Garros was matches, the chance to hone his competitive skills against some of the world’s top players at the highest level.
And he got that, with wins over Denis Istomin, Marin Cilic, and finally Koepfer on Saturday night, proving to himself his skills were still there.
So, too, was his stamina. His three-hour, 35-minute, four-set win over the German was a testament to Federer’s underlying fitness and his desire. Three best-of-five matches put miles on his legs and signified that when he gets to grass, where the points should be shorter, he will have what it takes to go far.
Andy Murray, who knows a thing or two about recovering from serious injury, commended Federer in a tweet on Sunday.
Id argue that it’s quite risky to play multiple 4hr matches in a row in your 2nd tournaments back in 18 months so to me it makes sense to be reactive based on how your body feels, length of matches etc. Sensible decision from him
— Andy Murray (@andy_murray) June 6, 2021
“Id argue that it’s quite risky to play multiple four-hour matches in a row in your [third tournament] back in 18 months so to me it makes sense to be reactive based on how your body feels, length of matches etc,” he said. “Sensible decision from him.”
Some have suggested that Federer’s withdrawal, which sends Italian Matteo Berrettini through to the quarterfinals, is disrespectful to the French Open, saying he is treating the Grand Slam event effectively as a warm-up for the Noventi Open and, by extension, Wimbledon.
He could have chosen not to play at all at Roland-Garros and instead practiced on grass, but then he would not have gotten the match practice he so badly needed.
Surely, Federer has earned the right to make decisions based only on his own future. Recovering from the efforts of his third-round win to take on world No. 9 Berrettini would have been enormously tough, and maybe he would have risked injury. Maybe this is his last Roland Garros, and he wanted to go out on a high note.
Factoring in his age and health, Federer cannot afford to take risks. One injury could mean the end of his career, and as Daniil Medvedev said Sunday, it’s clear where his eyes are.
“Of course, we all know that a Grand Slam is still a goal for him,” the Russian said. “I think Wimbledon is always, even when he will be 50 years old, is a great chance for him. He wants to do his best to prepare. Here, after such a match, it would be tough for him to play top guys.”
Even though he had an inkling he wouldn’t play, Federer probably didn’t know how he would feel waking up the following morning. The soreness would have told him what he needed to do, and he made the decision accordingly.
The decision by Roland Garros, to move back a week in order to welcome as many fans as possible, also played its part. With one week of the grass-court season erased, going straight from clay to grass in Halle, Germany, without any recovery period or time to practice would again have risked injury.
After beating Koepfer, Federer hinted that he may even have surprised himself with his performances in Paris, having played just three matches in 2021 coming in.
“I didn’t expect to be able to win three matches here … and sort of back up a good performance of Cilic as well,” he said.
Part of Federer’s success over the past decade has been managing his schedule, plotting his way around the tour in the best manner to produce success.
In this case, that means no more Roland Garros. And if it proves to be his last, he will leave with the memory of his win over Koepfer, a fine win in itself, but a stepping-stone to where he wants to be.
If he somehow triumphs at Wimbledon next month, his decision will go down as a masterstroke.