While Roger rests, Rafa barrels on: A look at where the legends stand

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Two months ago in Indian Wells, Roger Federer was asked about his plans for the upcoming clay-court season.

“If I take a decision after [the Miami Open],” Federer said, “it’s basically, you know, looking ahead … How can I remain healthy and how can I keep the fire and the motivation for the tournaments that I will be playing?

“What I don’t want to do is overplay and just get tired of traveling and tired of just playing tournaments ... I want to play, if people see me, that they see the real me and a guy who is so excited that he’s there.”

When Federer said these words, he was flying high in a way that he hadn’t been for years. Six weeks earlier, he had won his first Grand Slam title since 2012, at the Australian Open. Nearly two months later, he would win Indian Wells, also for the first time since 2012. And at both events, he would beat his biggest rival, Rafael Nadal. The last year in which he had recorded two straight wins over Rafa was 2007.

What had Federer done differently that might account for this unexpected surge at 35 years old? Essentially, he hadn’t played tennis. Before going to Melbourne, he had been sidelined with a knee injury for six months. Before going to Indian Wells, he had played just two matches in the previous five weeks. In both cases, Federer had enjoyed the positive effects of rest without suffering any of the possible negative effects of rust. In Australia, he won three five-set matches at a major for the first time in his career.

When Federer talked about “the real me,” this is what he meant. In Australia he realized that, with the proper rest, his game and body would allow him to perform the way he had in his prime. After beating Stan Wawrinka in five sets in the semifinals Down Under, Federer talked about how this was the type of match he had been losing late in Slams in recent years. But this time, being fully rested had helped him counteract the effects of aging.

“At some point you reach a limit,” Federer said of his losses in his 30s, “and you just can’t go beyond that. You can play them tight. You might win one of them. You just can’t win back to back.

“That’s where both—I guess Rafa and myself—said, ‘OK, enough of this already. Let’s get back to 100 percent, enjoy tennis again, enjoy the practice’ ... From that standpoint, the six months definitely gave me something in return.”

And from that standpoint, Federer’s announcement on Monday that he wouldn’t be playing the French Open later this month shouldn’t come as a surprise. In recent years, he has focused on Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, and as he said, this would give him more time to prepare for those tournaments, and for the grass and hard-court seasons to come. To get ready for Paris is more than a two-week proposition, after all. It would involve hard practice on clay, and potentially long matches at Roland Garros, all of which would have to been done on his surgically repaired knee. Federer has already played a tournament on little rest this year, in Miami. While he won it, he had to save a match point against Tomas Berdych in the quarters, and he looked a little wobbly in a two-tiebreaker win over Roberto Bautista Agut in the third round. Federer knew he had pushed himself to the limit that week.

A few days ago, I wrote that Federer should play the French Open. With his three wins over Nadal this year, and with Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray struggling, I thought he had a good chance to win it. Maybe, as some have joked, Federer felt the same way until he saw Nadal win his 15th straight match, and third straight tournament, on clay in Madrid. If so, who can blame him?

Federer is thinking about Wimbledon and the Open, but he’s also thinking about the future. He says he wants to play two or three more years, and this is a way to make that happen. His fellow 35-year-old, Serena Williams, was paring her schedule down for the same reasons before her pregnancy. How does a champion keep winning into his or her late 30s? Now it’s Federer’s turn to find out. Both he and Serena, champions in Australia this year, have discovered that they don’t need to play as many warm-up events as they once thought they did.

Federer mentioned that Nadal had also dedicated himself to getting healthy. But we can see the difference between the two men’s approaches—as well as their ages—this week. At the same time that the 35-year-old Federer took himself out of the French Open, Nadal, who will be 31 in two weeks, said he wanted to go full speed ahead to Rome, even after winning three other clay-court events this spring. While Federer’s confidence seems to always be there, on command, Nadal’s benefits from constant feeding—i.e., constant winning. Who knows? If Federer’s example works, Nadal might be skipping certain parts of the season when he’s 35.

For now, Nadal will play a Federer-less French Open, and if recent history holds, Federer won’t be challenged by Rafa at Wimbledon; the Spaniard hasn’t made it past the fourth round there since 2011. These two began their careers by invading each other’s kingdoms—Nadal broke through the gates at Wimbledon in 2008; Federer did the same at Roland Garros in 2009. A decade later, they’re back on their own turfs, happy to still have a chance to conquer them all over again.

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