Roger Federer must have been feeling good about himself — literally — to commit to a return to clay for the first time since 2016. True, that he did so on short notice indicated an ambivalence borne of the seeming incongruity of his strengths to the demands of the surface. Nonetheless, his choice was, if surprising, justifiable. After all, he does have three major wins over the last two and a half years, as clear a manifestation as any of his climb back to the sport’s elite. And he does have an affinity for the mineral aggregate, on whose courts he first started, and particularly for red clay, on whose bounces the Coupe des Mousquetaires is decided.
To be sure, Federer didn’t exactly have a productive tuneup to the French Open. He crashed out in the quarterfinals of the Madrid Open, squandering two match points en route to losing to World Number Four Dominic Thiem in three sets. He then withdrew in the same round of the Italian Open due to a right leg injury. Still, his optimistic side showed in his assessment of his reacquaintance with clay after a three-year absence; he declared himself ready for the rigors ahead. And, as things turned out, he was right; he breezed through the early stages of Roland Garros before prevailing over Stan Wawrinka, his tormentor the last time he walked through its doors, in the Round of Eight.
Regardless of what comes next, vindication has already arrived for Federer, who continues to defy Father Time and displays little to none of the deficits a typical 37-year-old head of the family bears. He may no longer be at his physical prime, but his mental faculties remain sharp and by far his most effective weapon. Against Wawrinka, for instance, he used guile, an extremely improved backhand, and a preferential option to charge the net at every conceivable opportunity to craft a convincing victory.
Federer will most certainly need his entire arsenal if he is to take the measure of his next opponent. Waiting in the wings is Rafael Nadal, defending champion and overwhelming favorite to claim a record-extending 12th French Open title. Conventional wisdom rightly pegs him as an underdog, and not simply because he has beaten his opponent only twice in 15 matches on the slower grounds, and never at Roland Garros. Yet, he is, if nothing else, ever confident. It’s why he has won the last five times they’ve met, and why he’s around in the first place. As he himself noted, “If I would have had a different mindset to avoid him, then I should not have played the clay.”
In any case, there can be no discounting the significance of Federer’s meeting with Nadal. For all the talent exhibited by the new generation of stars, the sport flourishes because of them (and, needless to say, of top seed Novak Djokovic). The old guard isn’t just surviving, but thriving. Which is why his presence in the semifinals is in and of itself proof of success. And unless and until he stops contending in the grandest stages of tennis, he’ll continue to postpone his date with the rocking chair and push himself as best he can.
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994.