To the uninitiated, the amazing story of his career might sound almost mythical. One of those that future generations will study in school, alongside William Tell. Although he wields a racket rather than a crossbow, Roger Federer has one thing in common with the Swiss folk hero – he often hits the bull’s eye. And now the 20-times Grand Slam champion has chosen to aim for a target from a long way off. Several months back, he fired an arrow in Doha which is expected to finally land next week in London. “I want to be 100% at Wimbledon,” he explained in Qatar in March, as he returned to competition after a 13-and-a-half-month absence due to two operations on his right knee. “This is essentially where the season really hopefully starts for me.”
Since his two tournaments in the Persian Gulf, the Basel native has not played as many matches as he hoped. “In terms of fitness, Roger is still a bit behind,” admitted Séverin Lüthi – one of his two coaches along with Ivan Ljubičić – at the end of April. “He still has some weak points and we need to concentrate on those.” That is why Federer only returned to the courts in mid-May: on clay, in Geneva. “I need about 10 games to know where I am,” he told reporters at the time. “The idea of playing on clay is to have as much time on court as possible before Wimbledon. The aim of Geneva and the French Open are to get me back in the saddle. I treat these tournaments as special training opportunities.” The only problem is that he was defeated the next day in his first match against Pablo Andujar.
Wimbledon, three weeks after being knocked out of the French Open
Two weeks later, he was able to notch up three wins at Roland Garros, in matches of increasing intensity: 1 hour 33 minutes against Denis Istomin, 2 hours 35 minutes against Marin Čilić, then a 3 hour 35 minute battle to oust Dominik Koepfer. After this final duel – the first of his career to be played behind closed doors – which he won 7/6 6/7 7/6 7/5 by playing into the night until 00:43, he bowed out of the Round of 16. “It's important that I listen to my body and make sure I don't push myself too quickly on my road to recovery,” he explained the next day, no doubt feeling the effects of the previous day’s exertions and some creaky joints at nearly 40 years old. Although reassured by his progress in terms of his overall strategy – “I didn't expect to be able to win three matches here,” he told the press – he didn’t feel up to pushing on non-stop over several long games.
This physical condition could leave the outside observer with some doubts. If Federer felt that his body was unable to go on after a bout of less than four hours, how could he, at his age, possibly play up to seven matches over the best of five sets just three weeks later at Wimbledon? Although valid, this question remains an enigma for most of mankind. Only the man himself and the members of his staff and entourage have sufficient information to answer it. And even they cannot be certain that the former world number 1 will be on top form on the English turf just a few days from now – that much is clear from Federer’s press conference following his first round victory in the ATP 500 event in Halle.
“My sights are still set high for Wimbledon”
“I was focused on this week (i.e. last week in Halle) and my recovery after Paris, so you catch me a bit off guard by asking me about my expectations for Wimbledon,” he replied following his 7/6 7/5 success against Ilya Ivashka, eight days after his withdrawal from the Parisian Major. “My sights are still set high for London. I mean, they must be otherwise I wouldn’t play. All the matches I play here will be positive for Wimbledon. My service is OK. I just need to get my footwork right, have the right intentions on the court, pick the right shots at the right times, make sure my aggressive play from the back is working automatically. I hope to reach that stage this week, otherwise I have another week of training afterwards.” A training that he will need to put to good use.
Beaten 4/6 6/3 6/2 by Félix Auger-Aliassime in the second round of the German ATP 500, he didn’t rack up the expected 10 matches he mentioned. Since Geneva, he has played six: four on clay and two on grass. As Wimbledon approaches, with the main draw beginning on Monday, the arrow fired in Doha does not appear to be heading for the centre of the target. But Roger Federer, working at home in Switzerland since his setback at Halle, may still be able to put things right. If he succeeds, then he could add a chapter to the almost mythical story of his feats. One in which, at almost 40, he achieves a spectacular emergence from the wilderness at Wimbledon, after a pause of more than a year and only eight games in the bag since his return in March.
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Felix Auger Aliassime