It’s more than a decade since Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal featured in three straight French Open finals – arguably the time when their storied rivalry was at its zenith. Nadal, unsurprisingly, ruled supreme all three times, and it took an upset of monumental proportions in 2009 – when Robin Soderling stunned the Spaniard at Roland Garros – to open the door for Federer to claim his solitary major on the clay.
Famously, that red dirt breakthrough a decade ago saw Federer equal Pete Sampras’ then-record of 14 majors and, most significantly, complete his career grand slam. For a tennis icon now up to a record 20 major titles, Federer’s relationship with clay is intriguing.
Federer, a few months shy of 38, has largely shunned the tough surface during the twilight stages of his career. It’s been nearly three years since his last foray and his last French Open was in 2015. He didn’t compete at Roland Garros during his injury-interrupted 2016, a season when he was managing a knee injury suffered while running a bath for his twins.
The questions abound. Is Federer having one last tilt as part of a swansong to tennis? With Nadal – the greatest clay-court player in history who boasts a 13-2 surface record against his famous Swiss rival – gunning for a ridiculous 12th French Open title and Novak Djokovic striving to again hold all four major titles at once, are we set for the most exciting French Open for some time?
Not long after his Australian Open fourth-round exit, Federer put to bed any speculation that a return to clay was married to imminent retirement. He told reporters that his change of tack was not some sort of say-goodbye-while-you-can to Roland Garros.
“No, it’s not. I thought of it, in isolation, do I want to play the clay or not? The answer was yes,” Federer said. “This doesn’t mean this is my last clay-court season, whatever, or I had to play one more time before I retired. That was not my thinking.
“All I knew is that missing it for two to three years basically, my body was ready, my schedule with the family, my schedule with the team was ready to do it again. This was when I opted to say, ‘It will be nice’.”
There’s a school of thought that Federer, by re-exposing himself to clay and tournament play, will be sharper for his favoured grass events that follow. Few need reminding that he's an eight-time All-England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club champion – with his last triumph at Wimbledon coming two years ago.
Four-time major winner and two-time French Open champion Jim Courier says there are probably three reasons why clay is on Federer’s agenda: his body is sound, Federer simply misses the Parisian grand slam experience and, yes, he will be better placed for the start of play on grass.
“Only Roger knows for sure why he is adding clay back to his schedule but I believe there are a few good reasons,” Courier, a commentator with Channel Nine, told the Sunday Age.
“One, he must feel confident enough in his back to play on clay again. His fitness coach has said that clay is the surface that caused his back the most trouble in recent years so they were avoiding it to protect his body.
“Two, he missed playing at Roland Garros. Three, by playing a few clay events he will be sharper at the start of the grass court season.”
Grand slam doubles legend Todd Woodbridge agrees that the signs are positive on the fitness front.
“It says that physically he’s actually feeling well. The last couple of years there was a bit of protection [for him] in terms of [his] back and not overdoing it when he came back when we maybe thought he wouldn’t get back with injuries and age,” Woodbridge says.
“I think it’s a statement to say physically he’s good.
“It’s very important to not be away from tournament play for that long.”
When a player of Federer’s calibre features in the Roland Garros draw, it’s not a case of making up the numbers. Suddenly there is a new opportunity for Federer to claim major No.21.
Says Woodbridge: “I don’t think it [playing again at Roland Garros] is about necessarily winning the French, mind you, he’s still capable I believe.
“A lot of that depends on both Rafa and Novak. But I think if you throw anybody else in the equation, then Roger is sitting there still with the potential to win the tournament.”
While Courier has Nadal and Djokovic as the distinct favourites, Federer – whom he rates as one of the all-time greats on clay – and last year’s runner-up Dominic Thiem are on the next rung.
“Roger’s overall clay court win percentage is exceptional,” says Courier.
“He has reached the French Open final five times, winning once and losing to Nadal in the other four. In the Open Era, he is in my top five.”
It’s been six years since Nadal and Federer faced each other on the red dirt – at the Italian Open – and eight years since their fourth French Open final. Fans are salivating for a cameo.
Two years ago the Nadal-Federer Australian Open showdown came out of the blue and it was like a celebration of past glories. Could the clay court phase on the calendar offer its own unexpected twist?