MADRID, May 8, 2019 (by Sharada Rajagopalan)
What was that Roger Federer said? Oh yes, this statement which has reached iconic proportions: “I’m not very confident going into this clay court season, I can tell you that – I don’t even remember how to slide anymore.” As it turned out, neither his lack of confidence nor his so-called forgetfulness manifest at any point in his 52-minute long, making-a-return-to-clay match against Richard Gasquet at the Mutua Madrid Open on Tuesday.
Thus, as far as comeback moments went, it turned out to be near-perfect for the 20-time Grand Slam champion who triumphed 6-2, 6-3. Federer peppered 28 winners – including three jaw-dropping drop-shots – heaping more misery on a familiar opponent who shared a certain similarity with him on the day. While Federer was being applauded for stepping back again on the terre battue, Gasquet, too, had taken only a couple of steps in re-joining the rest of his peers on the Tour for the first time this year after being forced to step aside for five months with a groin injury (and later related surgery).
Gasquet’s subdued movements during the match drew attention not only from the audiences but also from Federer. The Swiss, who spoke to ATP.com after the match, noted that Gasquet’s win over Alejandro Davidovich Fokina in the first round might have left a toll on his still-recuperating body. “It was nice seeing him back after so many months being away from the tour with injury. I think for both of us it was a special match,” the 37-year-old added, acknowledging his rival’s recent struggles.
Maintaining this theme of acknowledgements, the other side of this match, too, has to be spoken about. However short the first set was – and it was 23 minutes short – with Gasquet left far behind Federer, the second set was much closer than what the score showed. Up to the seventh game in the final set, Gasquet not only upped his game to disallow Federer from taking any chances on his serve but also kept himself in the hunt to try and pry a break point for himself on the three-time former Madrid champion.
Although Federer did not face any break points in the set (or in the match), his game had transitioned – with more errors emerging from his racquet complementing the flow of winners – across the two sets. Such a change, then, ties back to what he said prior to the start of his clay campaign vis-à-vis confidence and what it means along the way, both in Madrid and at the French Open where he is expected to head next.
Firstly though, one specific clarification. Somewhere along the way, since the time Federer was asked about his thoughts on returning to play on clay and after his successful return, confidence came to be conflated with comfortableness or lack thereof on playing on clay, per se. At the same time, it also needs to be understood that the two qualities need to work in tandem in order for a player who has not been active competitively for so long – even one of Federer’s calibre – to make an immediate mark, beyond merely match wins.
This, then, merits a deeper introspection of Federer’s words about not having confidence. Maybe what was reckoned to be an underplaying of his aptitude was his subtle way of emphasising that he, too, needed to re-familiarize himself with the surface as to fill the near-three-year gap. So that positive results would not just extend to individual matches but across his clay season in its entirety.