When Roger Federer announced last year that he was going to play a lighter schedule, which included bypassing the entire clay-court season, it was difficult to argue against the reasoning and end results: he was in his late 30s and extra rest would leave him fresher for the majors, which led to him winning his 18th and 19th Grand Slam titles.
Federer would go on to win his 20th Grand Slam title at this year's Australian Open, but given some of the surprising losses he's suffered since—pulling defeat from the jaws of victory—that blueprint is starting to come into question. Could too much rest be a factor in some of the losses Federer has suffered in 2018?
Seventy-seven unforced errors against the world No. 55 on a hot and muggy night in New York; a missed match point at Wimbledon against a player he’d never lost to; a three-set defeat at the hands of a youngster whose worst surface was grass in the championship match in Halle, Germany: if even one of those situations had occurred in years past for Federer, it would have been an anomaly. Now, taking those losses into account along with back-to-back third-set tiebreak losses in Indian Wells and Miami, and some of the luster comes off a season that started with such promise.
What those defeats have in common is that they came about in situations that required the ability to rise to the occasion in crucial moments, something Federer has demonstrated usually without fail throughout his illustrious career. Even though he’s seen and done it all over the course of nearly 20 years on tour, the practice court might not be the best place to keep those skills finely honed. He has always been able to make it look easy on court, with countless hours going in to developing every shot imaginable.
But what happens when the humidity and a game opponent can put you back on your heels, as seen in John Millman’s stunning win in the round of 16 at the US Open? Or when a big-hitting Kevin Anderson starts firing away, confident he can claw his way back into a match when the odds are stacked against him? It’s hard to replicate those situations when the stakes aren’t as high.
Considering that Federer has spent the whole year ranked among the Top 2 in the world, he’s still a favorite at any tournament he enters. Will these recent losses embolden his opponents, though, who are out there grinding away on a regular basis while Federer works on preservation?
After his earlier-than-expected defeat at Wimbledon this year, Federer announced that he wasn’t going to compete in the Masters event in Canada, as he wanted to make sure his legs were as fresh as possible for New York. In hindsight, more match play could have had some benefits. He also suffered a surprise defeat to Borna Coric during the grass-court season after taking off months while the tour moved through the spring clay-court stretch.
It goes beyond a matter of chasing points or trophies or working out any physical kinks: navigating turbulent times in match play is beneficial, too.
In 2017, Federer played three tournaments after the US Open, winning two of them. Following a similar schedule could have him physically ready for Melbourne next year, but where will that leave him for the rest of the season? The odds are that he will skip the clay circuit again, but perhaps if he were to play Paris and a couple more hard-court events, he’d have the opportunity to get that extra bit of mental work that he won’t find on the practice court.
After he stopped playing the French Open in the 1990s to focus on Wimbledon, Ivan Lendl never won another major. Was less match play a factor? As Federer enters the latter stages of his career, taking every step imaginable to extend his record-setting ways shouldn’t be overlooked—even if it means playing a more robust schedule.
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