A third-round exit at the Madrid Open probably wasn’t what Roger Federer had hoped for upon his return to competitive tennis, but failing to secure a victory doesn’t mean we should expect to see FedEx falter at Roland Garros.
Federer took a two-month break following his performance at Indian Wells in March, as both a result of a nagging back injury and a favorable opportunity to recharge before a run at this year’s Grand Slam events. He may be as healthy as ever, but Federer certainly needed an opportunity to shake off some rust.
The world’s No. 3 player dropped two of three sets to Kei Nishikori in the semifinals at the Madrid Open (6-4, 1-6, 6-2) after cruising past Radek Stepanek 6-3, 6-2 in the second round. Those particular matches couldn’t have been more different.
FedEx faced almost no pressure from Stepanek in his first match of the tournament, shaking off the dust in a manner we’ve come to expect from the 31-year-old. But Nishikori’s impressive service game gave Federer trouble, and raised some questions about his preparedness for the upcoming Grand Slam event.
Things have gone much more smoothly in Rome.
Again on a clay surface (this time at the Rome Masters), Federer evaded an upset bid from Potito Starace in just 51 minutes, dismantling his counterpart 6-1, 6-2 on May 14. The world No. 3 didn’t display any of the struggles that limited his effectiveness at the Madrid Open, and it looks (at least for now) like the clay won’t be an issue for FedEx as he prepares for the French Open.
But while all signs point to a good showing from Federer on May 26, Roland Garros hasn’t exactly been his strongest venue. That distinction lies with Rafael Nadal, who stands to be the 31-year-old’s biggest obstacle to claiming his second French Open title.
The current No. 5 player in the world has won the French Open seven of the last eight years, his lone defeat (and Federer’s only French Open title) coming in 2009. The “King of Clay” thrives at Roland Garros, and Federer’s hopes of winning the event will rest on getting past Rafa.
With the draw not yet available, it’s hard to predict FedEx’s chances of even reaching the finals for a potential showdown with Nadal. However the draw shakes out, he’ll likely have to beat more than one of the top six players in the world to earn the title.
Still, the most inviting sign for Federer should be the similar Madrid Open struggles of the rest of the Big Four. While Nadal took home the title, he was tested throughout the tournament (most notably by world No. 4 David Ferrer) and didn’t seem as indestructible as we would have expected.
Similarly, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic were far from perfect at the Madrid Open, each succumbing to upset bids short of the finals. No player can expect an easy path to the finals, but Murray and Djokovic certainly proved they could be playing much better tennis right now.
Ultimately, Federer’s chances of winning at Roland Garros will come down to how easily he can shake off the rust and settle in to his old form. Nadal, Murray and Djokovic present difficult challenges for the 31-year-old, but none are invincible.