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Skipping French Open Is a Strategy That Fits Roger Federer

The New York Times logoThe New York Times 22-05-2017 By BEN ROTHENBERG
Roger Federer, the winner of 18 Grand Slam events, after winning his only French Open title, in 2009. © Benoit Tessier/Reuters Roger Federer, the winner of 18 Grand Slam events, after winning his only French Open title, in 2009.

When John Isner received an invitation to play a charity exhibition match in Seattle in late April with Roger Federer, his initial reaction was to double-check the date.

“First, I said, ‘Roger’s doing an event in Seattle then?’” Isner recalled, surprised that Federer, the Swiss star, planned to be in the Pacific Northwest in the middle of the European clay season.

Federer, 35, had already decided to skip clay Masters events in Monte Carlo, Madrid and Rome, and made his absence from clay events complete last week, announcing he would withdraw from the French Open, which will begin Sunday.

“I need to recognize that scheduling will be the key to my longevity moving forward,” said Federer, who has won three hardcourt events this year, including the Australian Open.

Isner said he understood Federer’s decision, considering Federer has won Wimbledon seven times and the French Open once, in 2009.

“He has 18 Grand Slams, and it’s not like he’s never won the French,’’ Isner said. “He’s got it. I’m trying to put myself in his head, in his shoes, and I think it’s smart. He’s not chasing the No. 1 ranking, either. He’s focusing on three or four big goals this year, and Wimbledon is one of those.”

Would Isner, 32, ever employ the same scheduling strategy, skipping a chunk of a season to maximize his chances for a win later?

“Oh, heck no,” Isner answered. “Because you don’t want to miss a Slam. I would never do that, unless I couldn’t physically take the court.”

Isner’s sentiment was echoed by other players at last week’s Italian Open. Even those who loathe clay would not consider skipping it to focus on other surfaces. Federer, they believe, operates by his own rules.

“Roger is Roger,” said Bernard Tomic, who has a 34.8 winning percentage on clay and 60.9 on grass. “He’s the king. He can do what he wants.”

Top-ranked Angelique Kerber, who has won 57.2 percent of her matches on clay and 70.4 percent on grass, said the idea of going months without competing was daunting to her.

“If you do like two months of just practice and time off and then going to a tournament, starting playing matches, it’s not so easy,” she said.

Mirjana Lucic-Baroni cited Federer’s win at the Australian Open after taking the second half of last season off as evidence of his being unique.

“Not everybody can afford to take a month or two off, and then play like he played in Australia,” she said. “Roger is a special kind.”

Lucic-Baroni clarified that she meant “afford” in terms of loss of form, not financial considerations, but ever-fattening purses at tennis tournaments have also deterred nonparticipation, especially at Grand Slam events. A first-round loser at this year’s French Open will receive 35,000 euros (about $39,000), roughly double what was offered a decade ago.

Other factors dissuading players from skipping clay events include the addition in 2015 of a third week between the French Open and Wimbledon and, as Rafael Nadal pointed out, a new ranking system that penalizes players for skipping a tournament instead of just picking from their best 18 results.

Skipping the French Open to improve one’s chances at Wimbledon was more common in the past, especially among Americans. John McEnroe played Wimbledon after skipping the French Open five times; Jimmy Connors did it six times. Martina Navratilova played at Wimbledon after missing the French Open 10 times, doing so in two five-year blocks, 1976-80 and 1989-93.

The queen of this scheduling maneuver, though, was Pam Shriver. She played singles 17 times at Wimbledon, but only twice at the French Open. (She played only 12 singles events on clay in her career, and 69 on grass.)

Shriver said her coach, Don Candy, had insisted that playing both tournaments would be detrimental to her chances on grass courts, which she preferred, pointing to the infrequency of players’ winning both the French Open and Wimbledon.

“He felt that in a six-week period you couldn’t expect to be at your best at both,” Shriver said of Candy. “You just couldn’t peak for two majors, unless you were exceptional, and that would be Bjorn Borg in our era. And then Martina did it, and then Graf,” she said of Steffi Graf. “But it was the best of the best of the best. That wasn’t me.”

Shriver endorsed Federer’s thinking, saying he “is the best of the best of the best.”

“He may not win Wimbledon, but he has a much better chance of doing it because of this,” she said

Another player who might be suited to such a strategy is Venus Williams, 36, a five-time Wimbledon champion who reached the French Open final only once, 15 years ago. Since 2013, Williams’s 57.6 winning percentage on clay pales next to her 76.9 winning percent on grass.

But Williams continues to play a limited clay-court schedule, which this year will consist of Charleston, Rome and the French Open. Williams rarely plays on grass before Wimbledon.

“As I try to plan a schedule, I know I’ve already played a lot less than most players,” she said. “And who knows what I’ll do next year? You get to a point in life where you don’t want to spend four and five weeks on the road. You want to play quality and not quantity.”

Williams added that Federer’s family circumstances did not match her own.

“I definitely don’t want to watch at home at this point,” she said. “Everybody’s got different priorities. I think he’s got four more kids than I do, so it’s a little bit different.”

Williams’s coach, David Witt, expressed confidence in her abilities to contend at the French Open, and pointed out that the women’s side did not have a dominant force like the nine-time champion Nadal on the men’s side.

“She believes, and I believe, that she’s capable of winning the French Open,” Witt said.

And the French Open-Wimbledon double, though unlikely, has happened five times since 2002.

“Even if you’re bad on clay, if you’re a top player and you have a mentality that you can win, you should play, because the number of women who can win right now, who have the opportunity, is so wide open,” Shriver said. “In the men’s game, it’s a lot more narrow, because you have this guy called Rafa who is on a roll again.”

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