PARIS – Among all things we know about Roger Federer, there’s this: in his entire career, he has never retired in the middle of a match. We also know that if in his mind he doesn’t think he has a shot at winning a tournament for physical reasons, he’s not going to play.
And so, after endless speculation and premature “announcements” by people not named Roger Federer, a short trip to Paris and a shorter practice session at Roland Garros Wednesday, the 2009 champion announced via Facebook that he won’t take part this year.
“I have been making steady progress with my overall fitness, but I am still not 100 per cent and feel I might be taking an unnecessary risk by playing in this event before I am really ready,” Federer said on his Facebook page. “This decision was not easy to make, but I took it to ensure I could play the remainder of the season and help to extend the rest of my career.”
Federer has put together a lot of streaks during his Hall-of-Fame career, but the one he might have been most proud of was the fact that he played in 65 consecutive Grand Slam tournament main draws. The fact that until this year he has remained remarkably healthy was a big contributing factor.
The last major main draw the Swiss star failed to make was at the 1999 US Open, when countryman Ivo Heuberger defeated him in the second round of the qualifying. This time, his own body defeated him, specifically the old back issue that has cropped up again.
This is an Olympic year, and Federer had intimated long before the season began winding its way around continents and surfaces that he might well skip the entire clay-court tune-up season to keep himself fresh for the jam-packed summer that will include Wimbledon, The Olympics in Rio and the US Open.
Federer had knee surgery after the Australian Open. He didn’t play Indian Wells, decided to play (and then pulled out of) Miami, then changed his mind about the clay-court season pass. He gave serious consideration to playing Madrid before ultimately deciding against it, and he played one match in Rome before pulling out with the back issue.
All of which to say, it has not been a typical Federer season, by any stretch.
In a press conference Thursday evening, new Roland Garros tournament director Guy Forget said he sensed the pullout was a major possibility when Federer coach Ivan Ljubicic (formerly the coach of Milos Raonic), asked him to schedule Federer's first-round match as late as possible.
Of all the majors, Federer only won the French Open once, in 2009 – the year then-unbeatable champion Nadal was shocked in the fourth round by Robin Soderling of France. So even under ideal circumstances, at this point in his career, you probably wouldn’t consider him a major favourite to win it.
It was actually thoughtful of Federer to withdraw before the official singles draw, which takes place Friday at 11:15 a.m. Paris time.
Had he chosen to wait until the last moment to decide if he were fit enough to play he would have been the No. 3 seed, pushing nine-time champion Rafael Nadal down to the No. 5 spot
That would have meant that any of the top contenders – No. 1 Novak Djokovic, No. 2 Andy Murray and No. 4 Stan Wawrinka (the defending champion) could have drawn Nadal as early as the quarter-finals.
Federer’s withdrawal moves Nadal up to the No. 4 seed. So if the others must face Nadal on their run to the title, it won’t be until at least the semi-finals. The same holds true for Nadal, who won’t have to face any of those opponents until and if they reach the final four.
Of no less consequence to Canadian tennis fans, the withdrawal moves Milos Raonic from the No. 9 seed to No. 8. It’s not as significant a change as the Nadal move. But it does slightly drop the level of the 25-year-old Canadian’s opponents. On paper, Raonic would face a player seeded No. 25-32 in the third round if he gets there (rather than No. 17-24), and he could face a player seeded No. 9-12 in the fourth round, rather than No. 5-8. That means, if both get that far, Raonic would avoid Japanese star Kei Nishikori, a rival has proven difficult to beat.
On the plus side, Federer said he plans to be back in Paris even though he turns 35 in August.
“I remain as motivated and excited as ever and my plan is to achieve the highest level of fitness before returning to the ATP World Tour for the upcoming grass court season,” he said. “I am sorry for my fans in Paris but I very much look forward to returning to Roland Garros in 2017.”