Roger Federer on a clay court has become an unfamiliar sight in recent years but the Swiss maestro arrived at the Caja Magica on Friday to fine tune his game as he gears up for a return to action on the dirt in Madrid.
The 37-year-old Swiss shared two hours on court with world No. 63 Robin Haase, with coaching duo Ivan Ljubicic and Severin Luthi also on hand to offer him advice as he makes his eagerly anticipated comeback on clay.
In front of several hundred fans on the Estadio Manolo Santana, Federer strutted around the Madrid Open show court with his usual pomp, looking typically well equipped for the challenges that lie ahead in the coming week.
The choice of his practice companion was rather intriguing given the current state of affairs in tennis politics.
Haase is a member of the 10-man player council, which has been heavily criticised by Federer’s compatriot Stan Wawrinka in an explosive letter to The Times where he bemoaned the ‘worrying decline in moral standards’ in men’s tennis in the aftermath of shamed ATP board member Justin Gimelstob’s no contest plea for felony battery charges.
Federer admitted he is considering a return to the political scene – Novak Djokovic currently sits as player council president – and could be seen in several lengthy discussions with Haase at the side of the court.
While the Swiss will no doubt be quizzed on his thoughts of the state of affairs in men’s tennis when he faces the media on Sunday, there is a general buzz around the ‘magic box’ as fans await the world No. 4’s competitive return on the clay.
Federer, unlike say his great rival Rafael Nadal, is not known for his rigorous practice sessions, preferring to instead spring into life on the match court but he struck the ball in clean fashion throughout his hit with Dutch ace Haase.
Ditching his jacket after just 10 minutes, the Swiss found his groove in windy conditions on Manolo Santana and looked totally at ease with the conditions.
Of course, the true test for Federer will come in match play. Will he be comfortable darting from one tramline to the next? Will, as he alluded to previously, he be condfident reintroducing the trademark clay-court slide to his game?
— Mutua Madrid Open (@MutuaMadridOpen) May 3, 2019
When playing points, Federer certainly seemed to be adapting well to the challenges presented to move effectively on this surface. The Swiss seemed relatively in control and even introduced a few slides – something he admitted he would have to re-learn ahead of his competitive return.
The outstanding moment of the session came at the end of the first set, which Federer won 6-3.
Stranded at the net with Haase approaching what should have been an easy putaway, the Swiss remarkably flung his racquet behind his back with cat-like reflexes to send the smash back over the Dutchman’s head before eventually going on to win the point.
The 20-time Grand Slam champion has not competed on this surface since losing to Dominic Thiem in Rome some three years ago and he will return to Roland Garros for the first time since 2015 later this month.
It appears fanciful the 37-year-old will win a second French Open title but with his main rivals Nadal and Novak Djokovic still searching for their best form on the crushed brick, there is a sense that the door is somewhat ajar should someone push hard enough.
While the clay courts of Paris are suited to Nadal, Madrid often throws up a shock or two and the conditions certainly suit Federer.
At altitude, the ball flies quickly through the clay, which will ensure the three-time Madrid champion’s serve remains a potent weapon.
As tournament director Feliciano Lopez put it on Thursday: ‘He decided to play the French Open again this year so he might have thought he needed another extra week on clay and I think he felt Madrid is the right choice for him, no?
‘He played great here in the past, he had some great memories from Madrid. The conditions here are good for his tennis, that’s another reason. We are very happy to have him here.
‘To have also Rafa and Novak – the ‘Big Three’ in one week is almost impossible nowadays so it’s really good news.’
He may have only won one title on clay – in Istanbul, 2015 – since his last win here in 2012 but early signs suggest he will be a force to be reckoned with when he competes next week.
Nadal and Djokovic will both take to the court later on Friday, with the latter practising with Canadian prodigy Felix Auger-Aliassime.