After returning to action at the Mercedes Cup in Stuttgart and losing to eventual champion Dominic Thiem, Roger Federer returned to what could just be called his home away from home in Halle (Westfalen) on Wednesday. The eight-time champion of the Gerry Weber Open made a winning return, taking out Germany’s Jan-Lennard Struff in his opening round. Afterwards, the 34-year-old talked about managing his return on the grass after a first six months dominated my injuries, the current trend of hiring “surface coach mentors” as well as being in the unusual position of watching tennis from the sidelines.
He never faced a break point and lost just two points behind his first serve, but Roger Federer remains ever the perfectionist in Halle.
“It was okay — it’s the first round you know,” the top seed assessed after defeating Jan-Lennard Struff, 6-4, 7-6(3), on Wednesday. “I’m getting used to the different court again. First round are always where you don’t play your best, usually.”
While Federer is know to be a grass court connoisseur, the surface isn’t necessarily been the very easiest to come back on — considering the very wet and slippery conditions across Europe over the course of the past few weeks.
“The humidity is high, there is a lot of rain in the area and honestly I don’t think we’ve had five days of nice weather anywhere in Europe, except the south maybe,” Federer said. “So, for the grass courts it is terrible. That’s why all my practices throughout the last two weeks on grass have been like, ‘I don’t know if you can play points.’ So, it has been tough to prepare properly for the grass court season this year.”
With the grass courts not in ideal condition, movement remains the biggest question mark for Federer following his first few performances in Stuttgart and here in Halle — particularly considering his injury-marred season so far and whether his back and knee ailments remain on his mind as he moves, and occasionally slips, on the grass.
“I actually asked myself about this during today’s match, I’m not sure. ‘Why am I not moving a little quicker and more explosively?’ But we’re on grass. It’s a tough surface to move on and maybe it takes some time until things fall into place again. With the season I’ve had, it’s only natural that there are some question marks when you might not be 100 percent yet — whether that is physically or in terms of confidence.
“Sometimes it’s difficult for me to weigh up whether it’s the humidity, whether it’s me or due to my opponent — no idea,” the Swiss said before adding with a laugh, “But then you think it doesn’t really matter all that much, just try your best and we’ll see how things go.”
As a result, Federer is keeping expectations fairly modest when it comes to his title defense in Halle — still, the 34-year-old is optimistic. The first few matches in Stuttgart helped him and he is happy to be able to play both tournaments after initially pondering to skip one, depending on how his recovery was coming along.
“The bar is naturally lower overall just because I need to first feel like I’m free with everything, my mind, my body, my game,” the World No. 3 explained. “There’s so many things to work through it. I’m getting there. I’m happy that I’m getting more and more info every match I play. Now, I think it was clearly really good for me that I played Stuttgart last week. Otherwise, I would have come here and just say anything is a good result.”
Federer’s withdrawal from Roland Garros was one of the big talking points in the run up to the tournament and many lamented his absence, with Germany’s F.A.Z.’s headline reading rather melodramatically,”Roland Garros without Federer: Like Paris without the Eiffel Tower” — a bemusing metaphor, but also one that might be slightly overdramatizing things, even according to the Swiss himself.
“Well, that’s exaggerating things a little, let’s be honest,” Federer laughed. “But tennis continues wonderfully without me. Sure, it’s a little different, people are used to me playing everything, particularly at the [Grand] Slams within the last 16 years — and that’s what hasn’t made the decision very easy. However, I believe that when it comes to injuries, everyone understands that you cannot play and that you’re the one who knows what’s best for you. I think people know that I’m being truthful and honest with these things. Of course, I have the feeling that I should fight through this, struggle through this and I often do this for the tournaments, the organization, myself, my team and I have and I’m also able to assess the risk factors carefully.
“I’m not the only one doing that. You also have to fight through the tough times but sometimes it’s also better to draw a line and say, ‘You know, my life, my career, my season is too important for me to play quite possibly the toughest tournament in the world — physically — to risk everything with the knowledge that it’s impossible for you to win.’ I have to be honest there; people will understand it and I was sad for half a day when it was announced and the next morning I woke up, it was a new day, I went off to rehab and train[ed] three times a day…I only had to travel back home and then Paris was wrapped up for me, really.”
While Federer hired Ivan Ljubicic at the end of last year, one of the more recent trends has been to add consultants for specific surfaces almost, with Ivan Lendl rejoining Andy Murray for the grass, John McEnroe mentoring Milos Raonic and Stan Wawrinka asking Richard Krajicek to join his team for the next few weeks.
“I’ve got no idea where this is going to lead but it’s certainly good that former pros get these job opportunities, really. I think that’s actually a good thing,” Federer said. “It’s nice to think that these players can help you improve because only the very best players or the good players know the feeling what it’s like to save break points, serve aces — everything that’s important to win those big matches, to withstand the pressure. Other coaches who didn’t experience these things have other qualities, of course — they’re incredibly skilled analysts, for example.
“Now, to take coaches for specific surfaces, it really depends on the personality of the the players, if they get along well. It can become irritating, it can be incredibly helpful…Personally, I believe in long-term work paying off and that those short-timed things don’t always work, but everyone needs to figure that out for themselves. I am not the others, the others aren’t me and everyone has to make their own decision there. Of course, t’s really interesting and I’ve worked with great former pros myself — not in this style, for just a month or two, though.”
On Thursday, Federer will continue his quest for a ninth Halle title — one that would probably be more significant than some of his previous victories at the Gerry Weber Open considering the year he has had. His opponent will be Malek Jaziri, who knocked out Ricardas Berankis to make the second round. The encounter will not take place before 5:30 pm local time.