Roger Federer has skipped the clay court season for the last few years. Among the Big Three—Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Federer—the record grand slam holder own the least amount of clay titles: just 11 compared with Djokovic’s 13 and of course Nadal’s incredible 57 hauls.
But rumours started circulating right before the tennis season in Australia that the Swiss legend may be reconsidering clay into his priorities. Federer has clarified that he will not make a final decision about it until the conclusion of the “Sunshine Double” Masters events at Indian Wells and Miami.
However, the prospect of having the 20-time grand slam champion back on the orange dirt is a very exciting change in the lexicon of tennis. “Roger Federer is planning to play clay in 2019,” a source in Dubai tweeted, according to Express “He is considering to play Rome and/or Barcelona as preparation ahead of Roland Garros”.
His former coach—and Tennis Channel commentator— Paul Annacone, thinks it will happen. “I won’t be surprised at all if he plays at Roland Garros,” Annacone said. “He loves Paris and hasn’t played the last couple of years.
There’s no reason he can’t do well there, again it’s about his schedule”. “I have to figure out the American summer, the clay, then the grass and how would that work or if it is just better to keep it like it was,” is all Federer would commit to, according to a presser at Hopman Cup.
“We are working through it with the team”. But why shouldn’t he consider playing clay again? The 37-year-old tennis superstar is still considered one of the top five greatest clay court players of all time, even if the surface is his worst.
He owns six Madrid Masters titles (including three when it was Hamburg Masters), part of his overall 27 Masters tally. He’s reached the finals at all clay court Masters events, losing mostly to Nadal or Djokovic of course.
His winning percentage on clay is 76% (compared to 83% on hard and 87 on grass)-- not a bad stat at all. A still-recovering Rafa is currently out, having pulled out of Abu Dhabi and lost in the first round at Brisbane, and hoping to recuperate in time for the Australian Open.
The timing of his recovery may contribute to Federer’s verdict on clay court participation. Although the six-time Australian Open champ has improved his record against Rafa—notably on hard courts, thanks to a winning streak over him since their subsequent comebacks—he has avoided him on clay and has always admitted that some of his toughest losses were at the hands of “La Decima” on that surface.
Federer’s 2009 singular Roland Garros crown came after four demoralizing losses in finals to Rafa. With the Majorcan’s insurmountable 92% winning streak on clay, who can blame him? "I'm going to play when I feel ready to play, and I'm going to play the things that makes me happy to play.
I have plenty of years on the Tour," Nadal said during a press conference at Brisbane. "I really believe that I have keep having tennis to play in my career, and I really feel that my body is not going worse every year”.
Or perhaps Nadal will not be a factor into Federer’s plans at all. The Swiss player is, after all, 37 years old, and although he doesn’t want to pin down a retirement date, we can safely say that he has more professional playing years behind him than remaining.
Does he really want to get to the end of his career never having played on clay again? There’s another legacy at stake as well. There are only two Masters titles the sports legend doesn’t own, Rome and Monte Carlo.
Last year Novak Djokovic became the only man in tennis to win all Masters crowns by defeating Fed in the Cincinnati final. Federer’s reached the final at both clay tournaments he’s never won, the last one being the 2015 loss to Nole in Rome.
Although both Nadal and Djokovic hold more Masters 1000 titles (33 for Rafa and 32 for Nole), Federer has won the most matches at these events. There aren’t a lot of records left for Federer to break or match, but possibly achieving this record would be a thrilling coup for the statesman of tennis.
We’ll have to wait and see for now. I, for one, am crossing my fingers that we see Federer back on the clay courts this spring.