SmashDebate: Is Roger Federer right to skip clay?

Published by Tennismash

Roger Federer competing at the 2015 French Open, the last time he played at Roland Garros; Getty Images
Is Roger Federer’s decision to skip the entire claycourt season for the second straight year a case of clever scheduling or opportunity missed? Our writers debate.

The news was confirmed at the weekend that many already suspected: Roger Federer will not contest the claycourt season.

It means that, following his shock second-round loss to Thanasi Kokkinakis in Miami, we won’t see the Swiss champion on court for three months, until the grasscourt swing kicks off in June.

It’s a decision that divided the opinions of our writers Matt Trollope and Vivienne Christie. So they go head-to-head in our latest SmashDebate.

Trollope

Oh hi Viv.

So, no claycourt tennis for Roger Federer again this year? I think this is a mistake.

I’m aware this will sound a bit rich, coming from an armchair commentator like myself. Federer knows his body, knows that clay puts it under stress, and has openly prioritised Wimbledon above all else. But if there was a choice between yet another Wimbledon title, or a second French Open trophy, what would mean more for his legacy? I’d say the latter.

> RELATED: Federer loses No.1 ranking, will skip clay

Federer is already the greatest Wimbledon champion, and perhaps the greatest grasscourter, who ever lived. A ninth Wimbledon title is not going to change that. It’s not going to gain him more respect than he already has now, as a record-holding eight-time champion at the All England Club.

But the French has been a comparative struggle throughout his career. He’s won it just once. How amazing would it be, nearing his 37th birthday, if he added to his CV another title at his most challenging Grand Slam venue? AND become the only man other than Rod Laver in the Open era to win each major title twice?

It would be his magnum opus. And if there was any lingering doubt, it would stitch up the GOAT debate once and for all. Surely?

Christie

Oh Matt. I’m intrigued by your notion that Roger Federer has somehow robbed us with yet another clay court season to start and finish without him.

It’s a bright spark in my day really. Because as we anticipate three months of no Roger, I have to smile at your worries for his legacy.

Federer’s place in tennis history has long been assured. Perhaps even his status as Greatest Ever. Who among male players has more weeks at world No.1 and more Grand Slam titles?

And if yet more Wimbledon records won’t change that (if eight was great, surely nine would be divine) why worry about another French Open?

Focusing entirely on Federer’s All England Club feats is also mistaken. I honestly believe a decision to skip clay – the most brutal surface on a body that’s absorbed almost two decades of pro tennis – was made with an underlying objective to preserve his overall longevity.

Alongside Federer’s many masterful skills is ability to determine the schedule that best works for him. Twice now he’s returned from extended breaks to lift Grand Slam silverware. How sad it would be to see such a glorious career flame out through injury.

As much as we’ll miss him in these coming months, we have to remember his 37th birthday is fast approaching. Fans would rather see less Roger than see him quit tennis entirely.

Trollope

Eight is great. Nine is divine. Indeed, and a brilliant line!

Back to the issue we’re discussing … You raise good points about his sensible scheduling and his legacy being assured. Both of which is true.

But I don’t believe Federer’s primary motivation is extending his longevity and pootling around the world for as long as he can, simply for the love of the game. He’s a proud competitor and motivated by achievements and accolades – remember he altered his schedule recently to include Rotterdam, when the No.1 ranking was at stake?

The focus on clay as a potential source of injury has always bewildered me. Federer hurt his knee on grass in the Wimbledon semifinals of 2016. He jarred his back on the hard courts of Montreal in August 2017. At his age, he’s vulnerable to injury wherever he plays – yet that hasn’t stopped him skipping other events, despite getting injured on those very surfaces.

If he was prepared to make a stop in Rotterdam for the No.1 ranking, then surely Roland Garros represents similarly low-hanging fruit??

Christie

Thanks Matt. By “back to the main” issue you mean back to demanding more time from the man who made his ATP debut in 1998 and has now played more than 1400 professional matches? Not a single one of which has ended in a mid-match retirement.

Roger does not “pootle”. On a court or in his schedule. He plots and moves forward with purpose. And if that requires the occasional rest break, then who has better earned it?

On a side note, your assessment of Roland Garros as “low-hanging fruit” is troubling. Are you forgetting Rafael Nadal has dominated 10 of the past 13 French Opens? And that if not Rafa this year, there are many highly-credentialed contenders besides Federer?

Trollope

Viv, I’m not “demanding more time” from Roger. He can do as he pleases. He has definitely earned that right. I’m just saying it’s a missed opportunity.

Roland Garros is indeed low-hanging fruit, because the field is completely compromised. The primary threats on clay – Rafael Nadal, Dominic Thiem and Stan Wawrinka – are all injured. Another claycourt whiz, Novak Djokovic, is in a long-term funk. Andy Murray is nowhere to be seen. Power-hitters like Delpo, Cilic and Kyrgios all find their games blunted on clay. And Alex Zverev would have to do a major 180 to be considered a Grand Slam threat.

Who else is left as a contender?

Sure, Rafa may come back to full health and rapidly find his feet on clay. But what if he doesn’t? And so what if he does? Federer is healthy, engaged and motivated. And as he said recently: “I’d love to play Rafa on clay, best of five set match, don’t get me wrong. I’d like to see what would happen now.”

So would we, Roger. But alas, we won’t.

Christie

Let’s be honest, Matt. This is an argument that has as many twists – and extensions – as the career of the very man we’re discussing.

And in the spirit of Roger himself, I’m going to concede we’ve found at least one point of commonality: with so many question marks around the players you mention, Federer could have indeed been a force on clay this season.

At the same time, now seems the right time for Roger to rest and reset. And to “give the young guys a chance” as many have jokingly pleaded.

As Federer refreshes, so too will tennis generally. And if nothing else, his absence will provide an important reminder that such a superstar record should never be taken for granted.

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