A lot has changed since Roger Federer last played a professional tennis match. For one thing, there has been the small matter of a global pandemic which (in addition to changing the face of the entire globe, of course) has, to no small degree, changed the face of tennis.
When Federer last stepped on to court, before his semi-final against Novak Djokovic at last year’s Australian Open, he did so in front of thousands of cheering fans. When he steps on to court for the first time in fourteen months at the ATP 250 event in Doha, he can expect only a smattering of applause from a crowd which has been reduced to 10% percent of its total capacity.
There are a number of well-known folk tales about Federer. One of these folk tales is that he does not sweat. That may be so, but if his brow happens to need mopping at any point during his matches next week, he will now have to fetch his own towel, probably for the first time in twenty-odd years.
This is because, since Covid-19 and since the last time Federer played, ball boys and girls are no longer made to handle players’ sweat-saturated towels. This is a change which, we can hope, will remain permanently, but this is a change which nevertheless takes time to get used to (as Jo-Wilfred Tsonga showed when recently he made his comeback after a year’s injury absence in Montpellier).
Another folk tale is that Federer never makes a correct challenge. Well, since he last played, electronic line-calling has now been widely implemented to replace the challenge system, and so, much to his relief, it seems like Federer might never need to make a challenge ever again.
Last February, when Federer announced that he would be undergoing surgery on his right knee, he – nor anyone else – could have expected what would occur only a few weeks later. When Covid-19 halted the tennis tours, some called Federer a prophet: he could undergo and recover from surgery while no one else was winning – or even playing – tennis matches.
In hindsight, though, perhaps Federer’s apparent prophecy merely disguised the fact that his thirty-nine-year-old athlete’s body is nearly reaching its breaking point. And for a while, of course, no one was winning or even playing tennis matches, yet during his absence, Rafael Nadal has nevertheless managed to draw level with him on twenty Grand Slams and Djokovic has further closed the gap after last month’s Australian Open victory. As such, it certainly would seem like the right time for Federer to make his comeback.
Or is it? Federer’s return to action is unlikely to recall that of his last comeback following a long injury lay-off. In 2017, after being out for six months, Federer miraculously went on to win the Australian Open in his first competitive event back, beating Kei Nishikori, Stan Wawrinka, and Nadal along the way.
So, even were Federer to win Doha, a well-established but basically inconsequential tournament, this would be something, but it would in no way compare to what he managed to achieve in 2017. Worse still, a disrupted tennis calendar promises only a disjointed comeback for Federer. The chances of him developing some kind of form seem bleak, since he has already withdrawn from the tournament in Miami later this month, and the clay court tournaments in the spring have traditionally not been favourable to his body.
Of course, Federer has to make his comeback somewhere, but whether Doha is the best choice is yet to be seen. Regardless, it seems like making this comeback successful will be one of the hardest challenges that Federer has faced to date.
Image: Carine06 via Creative Commons