FELSBERG, Switzerland — After a three-year break from clay-court tennis, Roger Federer has not forgotten how to slide.
Nor has he forgotten how to sweep.
After completing a training session here late last month with the Alps for a backdrop, he grabbed a broom and wearily erased the evidence of the day’s labor from the gritty red surface of the practice court.
“Even Roger Federer cleans the clay,” said Toni Poltera, president of Tennis Club Felsberg, one of several facilities in the area where Federer practices.
It is a modest place near the Rhine River with a cozy, rustic clubhouse, a hitting wall and three clay courts, one of them named Roger-Platz in honor of its occasional visitor. Cows low nearby. A ski lift is visible atop a peak in the distance.
But Federer will soon be back in more typical tennis venues as he travels to Spain for the Madrid Open, which begins Sunday and will be his first tournament on clay since the Italian Open in May 2016.
Federer, who is expected to play his opening match on Tuesday or Wednesday, then plans to return to the French Open for the first time since 2015. It is all a gamble of sorts at age 37: clay-court tennis —with its grinding, tactical rallies — can be grueling. Injury is a risk but Federer insists he is both eager and at peace with his choice.
Roger Federer during a training session in Madrid on Friday. He plans to return to the French Open for the first time since 2015.CreditKiko Huesca/EPA, via Shutterstock
“I feel now I can play pressure free, because what is there to lose? Nothing really,” Federer said over lunch near the club. “I haven’t played on clay for three years so maybe for the first time in 15 years I can go to the French and be like, ‘Let’s just see what happens.’ And maybe that’s exactly what is going to make a beautiful result. And if it’s not, no problem. Then I have more time for the grass, and I still profited from a great buildup, and it made me strong physically, and it’s good for my game.”
[By the numbers: Roger Federer’s 101 titles.]
The calculus was different in recent seasons. He cut short his 2016 season on clay because of knee and back issues, then skipped the clay circuit altogether in 2017 because of concerns about his postoperative knee and the desire to pace himself after a resurgent but draining first phase of the season. It was a tough decision made after long debate within his team, but he went on to win Wimbledon without dropping a set.
Last year he decided not to change a schedule that had worked so well for him. Above all, he said, he wanted to properly celebrate the 40th birthday of his wife, Mirka.
So Federer relaxed on the Spanish island of Ibiza with about 40 friends while longtime rivals, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, and new-age contenders like Dominic Thiem and Alexander Zverev scrapped and skidded in Madrid, Rome and elsewhere in 2018. He said he watched the final in Rome between Zverev and Nadal at a beach club.
It was a glimpse of how life after professional tennis might look for a couple with two sets of twins: 9-year-old daughters Charlene and Myla and 4-year-old sons Leo and Lenny. But the Federers are not quite ready for retirement, and Federer was not in the mood for another extended, midseason hiatus from the circuit in 2019.
He senses that too much time spent on grass can actually dull his grass-court game (Wimbledon, where he lost in the quarterfinals last year, remains top of mind). “When you play too much on grass I feel you start guiding the ball whereas on clay you go with full swings,” he said.
Still, this is a return to Federer’s roots. He grew up in Basel playing primarily outdoors on clay or on clay courts covered by a heated bubble during the winter months. There are relatively few outdoor hard courts in Switzerland.
“My first challenger was on clay, my first satellite was on clay, my first player I beat was on clay,” he said, referring to tennis’s minor-league professional circuits. “So clay came first.”
But he also lost his first 11 singles matches on clay on the main ATP Tour before finally winning three rounds at the 2000 French Open. Winning the French Open would have to wait until 2009, when Nadal, the most successful clay-courter in history, was for once out of the frame after a fourth-round loss to Robin Soderling.
“I had to come to love it and had to come to embrace it,” Federer said.
“It didn’t come like, hey, French Open this is it,” he said, snapping his fingers. “That was always going to be Wimbledon. I remember seeing Becker, Edberg and Sampras all holding up that trophy, and all three of those guys didn’t do that at the French. So my heroes did it at Wimbledon, so naturally Wimbledon was always going to be my No. 1.”
Federer has won eight Wimbledons, six Australian Opens, five United States Opens and just the one French Open. His career winning percentage on grass is 87 percent; on hard courts it’s 83 percent and on clay 76 percent. Federer’s winning percentage on clay still ranks behind only Nadal’s and Novak Djokovic’s among active players with at least 50 clay-court victories.
“It is probably Roger’s weakest surface, but the guy is a fantastic clay-court player,” said Brad Gilbert, the coach and ESPN analyst. “He’s not like a California guy who didn’t grow up playing on it.”
Federer is excited to see how his aggressive tactics and fine form translate to the surface at this stage. He will be ranked No. 3 on Monday. In his last three tournaments, all on hard courts, he won in Dubai, reached the final in Indian Wells, Calif., and won in Miami.
He has picked his first clay target carefully. Conditions are quick at the Madrid Open, which lies at an altitude of about 650 meters, or around 2,100 feet. That helps explain why Federer chose to train in Felsberg and nearby Chur despite the occasional chill and often-gusting winds. Felsberg is at an altitude of 572 meters, about 1,900 feet, and is also a short drive from his main residence near the mountain resort of Lenzerheide. Federer returned to Zurich, at lower altitude, this week before flying to Madrid on Friday.
“The thing is he now has the altitude hit in his system,” said Ivan Ljubicic, Federer’s co-coach. “So once he goes back to altitude in Madrid, he’s going to get it back in no time. If you don’t play at altitude for a long time, it takes like three or four days to figure it out.”
Federer joked in Miami that he had forgotten how to slide, and when he arrived at the Felsberg club at 10 a.m. with Ljubicic and his other coach, Severin Lüthi, one of his first moves was to practice sliding into the corners, first without a racket. As he rallied with the British player Dan Evans, in for the week to serve as a hitting partner, Federer would slide plenty more, seeming hesitant only when pushing forward to pursue drop shots.
“Sometimes the challenge for me is not to slide just to slide,” Federer said. “I think that’s where Rafa and the top clay-courters do so well. They only slide if they really have to. Because naturally you think, oh sliding is fun, and you start having almost too much fun. You get sucked in.”
His longtime fitness trainer Pierre Paganini expressed concern in 2017 that sliding on clay posed a threat to Federer’s left knee. “But now it’s honestly been such a long time since I had a knee problem,” Federer said.
He looked at ease exchanging one-handed backhands and quips with Evans as a steadily increasing number of club members observed from nearby benches, taking photos with their phones.
“I joined the club, so I could watch,” Anita Ott, 52, said.
The crowd, not much of one by Federer standards, remained close to library silent, only applauding when the afternoon practice session finally ended shortly before 5 p.m.
There will be much more commotion and anticipation in the near future.
“We saw an increase in ticket sales as soon as we announced he was coming,” said Gerard Tsobanian, chief executive of the Madrid Open. “It’s a superstar coming to play but also the fear that it might be his last tournament in this city, so people didn’t want to let the opportunity pass.”