When Roger Federer stepped onto Court Rainier III at the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters on Tuesday, it had been 75 days since he last played a match in competition – a 6-1, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 loss to Novak Djokovic in the Australian Open semifinals on January 28th.
The following day, he has since revealed, he made a seemingly harmless movement while running a bath for his twin 6-year-old daughters and tore the meniscus in his left knee.
Upon his return to Switzerland, he had arthroscopic surgery and has since withdrawn from tournaments in Dubai, Indian Wells and Miami – although the latter was because of a gastro illness unrelated to the knee.
He had originally planned to take a long break after Indian Wells and not play any of the European clay court tournaments except Roland Garros mostly because of his busy schedule on grass leading up to Wimbledon and then on hard courts before the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
The surgery-enforced absence has resulted in a change and he is now in Monte Carlo and could add another tournament – possibly Estoril beginning April 25th – before Roland Garros.
Ranked No. 3, Federer should still be a major factor in the men’s game. Only top dog Novak Djokovic has been able to beat him in the last three Grand Slams – in the 2015 finals at Wimbledon and the US Open and in the 2016 semis at Melbourne Park.
But who knows exactly how he will bounce back from the first surgery of his career and the resultant time away from the game?
There has been an obvious decline – partly due to the remarkable maturation of Djokovic – in recent years. In the 18 Grand Slams he has played since turning 30, Federer has won but once – Wimbledon in 2012. In the 18 Grand Slams before that (2007 – 2011) he won six times and the 18 preceding those (2002 – 2007) he won 10.
So an element of diminishing returns is evident and it’s prudent not to have too many expectations as he makes this comeback.
That’s especially the case on clay, the surface on which he has only won the 2015 ATP 250 in Istanbul and the 2012 Masters 1000 on the blue clay in Madrid since his historic triumph at Roland Garros in 2009.
“I am rested mentally and physically,” Federer said heading into this week’s Monte-Carlo Masters. “I’m happy to say that I’ve recovered well from the virus in Miami. At first, I was concerned that it might be something that would last a while, but I was feeling better three days later. I arrived in Monte Carlo nine or 10 days ago and I’ve been training on centre court for the past eight or nine days. I’m happy with how I move; how I’m hitting the ball. I’ve played a lot of practice sets.”
Tennis with a view 😎⛰ pic.twitter.com/0pyzbZos2C
— Roger Federer (@rogerfederer) April 11, 2016
He tweeted the picture above on Monday. “I’ve played very well in Monaco in the past,” he said, “but for now my objective is to make my return to play, gain a good feel and go from there.
“My knee hasn’t bothered me, but the big test will be seeing how it reacts in match conditions. There are no easy draws in a Masters 1000, so I am not underestimating anyone. At the same time, I hope no one is underestimating me just because I’ve been hurt.”
It did not appear Guillermo Garcia-Lopez did on Tuesday as Federer recorded an efficient 6-3, 6-4 victory over the No. 38-ranked Spaniard in his opening match after a first-round bye.
“I worked hard the last two or three weeks, even if I couldn’t play Miami,” Federer said after the victory. “I was a little nervous at the beginning and at the end. But Garcia-Lopez is a difficult player, especially on clay, so I’m glad to win.”
When asked by the court announcer what he was most pleased about, Federer replied, “to be back playing tennis with the best players in the world – that’s what I’m happiest about.”
Seeded third, he will next play the winner of No. 17-ranked Roberto Bautista Agut and No. 33 Jeremy Chardy.
Monte Carlo, along with Rome, is the only Masters 1000 Federer has not won. He lost in the final three years in a row (2006-08) to Rafael Nadal and in 2014 to Stan Wawrinka.
A year ago, he exited in the third round to Gael Monfils.
With such a packed schedule after Roland Garros – Federer intends to play two grass-court events, the new ATP 250 tournament in Stuttgart followed by his annual appearance at the ATP 500 in Halle in the two weeks immediately following the French Open – it seems unlikely success on clay is a high priority for him.
Looking back at the incident that happened the day after his Australian Open loss in January, it would have had far greater consequences had it occurred the day before the tournament began.
With his participation in the 2016 Aussie Open, Federer has now increased his record number of consecutive Grand Slam tournaments played to 65.
His overall total of Grand Slam events is at 67. So, if he’s able to play the three remaining Slams in 2016, he will reach 70 and tie Fabrice Santoro, who currently holds the record he set by playing the 2010 Australian Open.
It’s widely known Federer has plans to play in 2017, which is great news for his worldwide fans. But the man who is indisputably the GOAT (greatest of all-time) can’t go on forever and coming back to top form from the recent surgery and the resulting lay-off is going to be one of the biggest challenges of his amazing career.
Milos and Genie update
A year ago Milos Raonic was struggling with a foot (Morton’s Neuroma) condition, which would eventually require surgery on May 11, and had to retire trailing 5-2 to Tomas Berdych in the Monte Carlo quarter-finals.
This year, after a convincing 6-3, 7-5 victory over No. 98-ranked Marco Cecchinato of Italy, he continues to ride a 2016 wave of success that includes a title in Brisbane, a semifinal at the Australian Open, a runner-up finish in Indian Wells as well as an overall 18-3 won/loss match record – with the only losses coming to No. 1 Novak Djokovic, No. 2 Andy Murray and No. 26 Nick Kyrgios.
In a positive mood following his win over Cecchinato, Raonic said about playing on clay, “as long as I can serve well, I’ll have lots of fun on this surface.”
On Monday against the 23-year-old Italian, Raonic debuted a new bluish top and, most noticeably, a sleeveless right arm. You have to wonder if his sponsor New Balance isn’t happy to again see two bare arms coming out of his short-sleeved top because that allows for a more symmetrical exposure for their outfit.
Raonic’s next challenge on court will be Wednesday against super-solid clay-courter Pablo Cuevas. The No. 25-ranked Uruguayan won back-to-back titles on the red stuff in South America in February – in Rio de Janeiro where he beat Rafael Nadal 6-7(6), 7-6(3), 6-4 in the semifinals and in Sao Paulo.
Unfortunately for Canada’s Fed Cup team’s hopes in Bratislava, Slovakia this weekend, Genie Bouchard had to withdraw because of the abdominal strain she suffered at the Volvo Car Open in Charleston last week.
Bouchard is back in Montreal and seems in good spirits – at least judging by her posts on Twitter. Hopefully she can recover soon from her latest abdominal issue, which was at its worst at Wimbledon last year when she played and lost in the first round to Duan Ying-Ying from China despite a grade two tear and advice from medical personnel not to play.
It would appear her earliest return could be for the WTA International-level tournaments in Marrakech or Prague the week of April 25th. Following that, it would be the Premier events in Madrid and Rome in early May.
The good news is that Bouchard, currently ranked No. 46, is virtually guaranteed a spot in the Olympic singles in Rio. The June 6th entry cut-off for the 64-player singles draw is No. 56 and she, No. 12 Milo Raonic and No. 44 Vasek Pospisil (with no points to defend until after the French Open) will almost certainly be assured of representing Canada in the Games as long as other requirements, such as nomination by the Canadian Olympic Committee, are met.
Nestor and the Olympics quest
Daniel Nestor has embarked on a final quest to qualify for his sixth Olympic Games.
His first Olympics was Atlanta in 1996 alongside Grant Connell and they lost in the second round to Brits Tim Henman and Neil Broad. Four years later in Sydney, he won a gold medal teamed with Sébastien Lareau as they beat the favoured and favourite son “Woodies” (Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde) in the final.
Nestor made a successful start to his 2016 European clay-court season on Sunday when he and Radek Stepanek combined to beat Richard Gasquet and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 7-6(4), 6-4 at the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters.
Currently ranked No. 13 in the ATP’s individual rankings, Nestor needs to get into the Top 10 by the entry deadline for the Olympics – June 6th, the day after the French Open ends.
With Vasek Pospisil and Milos Raonic committed to playing doubles together in Rio de Janeiro, Nestor’s only option for qualifying for Rio is to have a Top 10 ranking. Then he would be able to select another Canadian ranked player to be his partner.
Here are the current No. 9 to No. 15 players in the ATP doubles rankings and their points:
9. Ivan Dodig: 5375
10. John Peers: 5150
11. Rohan Bopanna: 5020
12. Bruno Soares: 4980
13. Daniel Nestor: 4720
14. Florin Mergea 4709
15. Nenad Zimonjic 4290
In many ways those rankings provide hope for Nestor because a year ago at this time he partnered Leander Paes and they failed to win a single match in four tournaments – Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Madrid and Rome – heading into Roland Garros.
They did win two rounds in Paris, earning 180 points, so that still leaves Nestor with roughly 140 points to ‘defend’ leading up to the Olympics entry date.
Whether he can advance into the Top 10 is yet to be determined but he at least has a head start with regards to the players now ranked No. 9, Dodig, and No. 10, Peers.
Dodig, who won the French Open a year ago with Marcelo Melo, received 2000 points for that win and has a total of about 2,500 points to defend before the Olympics entry date. As for Peers, he has roughly 600 to defend by June 6th, far more than Nestor.
At No. 14, just one spot behind Nestor, Mergea has about 1,300 points to defend before the end of Roland Garros.
So, whether he catches up to players ranked ahead of him, or avoids being overtaken by those from behind, a solid showing with Stepanek through until the end of the French Open would definitely give him a great chance to reach the Top 10.
In recent years, some of his best results have come on clay – including winning both Madrid and Rome two years ago with Zimonjic.
There’s no chance Nestor, who turns 44 in September, will play a seventh Olympics in Tokyo in 2020. So a lot of people would like to see him and the 37-year-old Stepanek have a good run in the coming eight weeks to increase his chances for a sayonara appearance in Rio.
Later Tuesday they will next face the No. 4 seeds Jamie Murray and Soares. At the Australian Open in January, Nestor and Stepanek were beaten 2-6, 6-4, 7-5 in the final by Murray and Soares.
This is Nestor’s 15th year playing doubles in Monte Carlo. He has won it twice – in 2010 with Max Mirnyi and in 2009 with Zimonjic.
The next Djokovic generation
— BATennisWorld (@BATennisWorld) April 7, 2016
Here’s a picture from last week of Novak Djokovic and his nearly 18-month-old son Stefan in Monte Carlo, which is his family’s home base.
Feature photo: Mauricio Paiz