With Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal both experiencing problems with injuries over the past six months, Roger Federer has emerged once more as a genuine contender for the biggest events this year—starting with the 2013 French Open later this month.
The Grand Slam event at Roland Garros is widely thought of as Nadal's event, given the fact the Spaniard has won seven out of the past eight Grand Slams there.
However, with Nadal's body perhaps still not 100 percent, and Djokovic showing earlier in the year that he is beatable on clay, the 26-year-old isn't the outright favorite that he usually is.
Federer—with another strong start to 2013 behind him—was starting to garner great support about a possible French Open bid. And then, with one shocking defeat to rising Japanese star Kei Nishikori at the ongoing Madrid Open, it seems that bid had been immediately put on hold.
After all, if the Fed Express couldn't beat Nishikori on clay, how will he ever be able to beat Nadal at the French Open? That's just pure logic, right?
Well, perhaps not.
As much as many will want to say that this is proof that Federer's form is waning and as much as many will want to say that Federer's still the greatest, the reality is that this one loss didn't change a thing. Not one thing about Federer, the French Open or whether he's capable of taking down Nadal.
Perhaps the most overlooked thing in Federer's defeat is that this was his first game on clay all year. He has played on hard courts since September of last year, where he played two games for Switzerland in Davis Cup competition against pretty low competition. You'd have to go back to the French Open last year to find the last time in which Federer played a high-level match on clay.
Nishikori, by comparison, had already played a tournament on clay in 2013.
Now that might not seem like a big deal, but the reality is that every top player this year has shown struggles their first competitive match on a different surface.
Djokovic dropped the first set against Mikhail Youzhny in his first match on clay this year. Andy Murray lost in straight sets when he played Stanislas Wawrinka. Tomas Berdych barely got through Marcel Granollers before falling to Fabio Fognini in the next very round—all of which came in their first clay-court event of the year after playing everything up until that on hard-courts.
Nadal has been playing on clay courts all year essentially (other than the Indian Wells tournament), and so his clay-court is going to be better than those that haven't spent as long on the surface.
For even though some of the speed is coming back into the clay surface, the reality is that it's still a very significant jump to make throughout the year.
So for Federer, the loss to Nishikori shouldn't count any more than Djokovic's first-set against Youzhny did. It was an adjustment that was going to take time, and the Swiss maestro simply hadn't had enough time to completely adjust to the playing surfaces in Madrid.
Whether he'll have adjusted or not by the French Open still remains to be seen, with Federer probably needing to get some more clay-court experience under his belt. For at the moment, all he's got is an easy defeat of Radek Stepanek and a three-set defeat by Nishikori—a less-than-ideal Grand Slam preparation for the former World No. 1.
Just how well Federer fares at Roland Garros this year still remains to be seen, but it's clear that it won't be determined by one loss earlier this week.
He'll have to answer doubts about his backhand down the line and his ability to put away potential forehand winners. He'll have to figure out a way to get good depth against players that continue to press against him and he's got to ensure that his body holds up throughout the tournament.
What he doesn't have to do, however, is justify this loss.
It was one loss to a very good player on a surface that he hadn't played on before. Nishikori had, and he was simply able to play better than Federer on the day.
But give him a couple of weeks, and the Fed Express will be on song, and will make for a very tough opponent come the start of the 2013 French Open.
Regardless of who he might be up against.
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