Federer Goes Dutch… But Will He Pay A Higher Price?

by Matt Zemek

We should all go Dutch the way Roger Federer just did, collecting a considerable appearance fee for a tournament with a creaky field and a prize known as the World No. 1 ranking up for grabs.

Federer will either take on second-level players in good shape or top-tier players not ready to be at their best. This hardly guarantees victory — look up the name “Evgeny Donskoy” if you need a refresher course from 2017 — but Federer merely needs to win three matches to make the semifinals, which would enable him to return to the top spot in the ATP rankings at the age of 36 years and six months.

As tennis writer Tumaini Carayol wryly observed, this move “is the true meaning of SABR.”

After years of discipline in terms of not overextending his body to chase the No. 1 ranking, and after recent statements at the Australian Open about the need for careful planning and scheduling (which Federer, to his credit, has generally observed in his career), the World No. 2 couldn’t resist the fast-food double cheeseburger, garlic fries and strawberry shake at the local drive-thru. He caved. He splurged. The disciplined scheduling which has prolonged his career flew out the window.

Let’s be clear: Federer has a right to do whatever the heck he wants to — he has earned it. Let’s also note that this move gives Rotterdam residents and Dutch citizens one more reasonable chance to see him play in person. Federer had not played Canada in a few years, and he hadn’t played in Montreal since 2011, making it a fan-friendly move to go to Quebec last summer. Being a fan-friendly player is not something to dismiss for a global brand who faces so many demands on his time. Federer going to Rotterdam has made a lot of people freshly excited about the ATP 500 event in that locality — this move certainly contains a feel-good component.

However, professional sports are focused on one purpose above all others: winning. It’s the winning which produces the money, the winning which creates global popularity, the winning which provides better draws and more favorable court placements in tournaments. Roger Federer has won three of the last four major tournaments, which means that despite approaching his 37th birthday, he has a window of time in which to claim more major championships and make sure that, when Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic get to age 36 or 37, they will still be looking up at Federer’s major title count on the all-time leaderboard.

Federer’s choice to play Rotterdam certainly indicates that he’s unlikely to play Miami, and it probably indicates he won’t play clay events this year, but even if Federer is banking on extra rest and other ways to compensate for this decision, one can still regard it as unwise if the purpose of his scheduling arrangements is to maximize his chances of winning more major titles.

I liked the Canada decision from Federer last year because it offered a chance to pick up a fat stack of points, which Federer did (600 for making the final). However, I liked it mostly because of the six-year gap since his last appearance in Montreal. That’s a long time to be away from a fan base at a significant tournament in a major market. 

The concern, though, which made Canada such a hard decision for Federer was always the fact that with the tennis calendar sliding Wimbledon back a week (due to the creation of a third week between the end of Roland Garros and the start of Wimbledon, a wise move for tennis), the gap between the end of Wimbledon and the start of Canada shrank from four weeks to three. With four weeks between those events, Federer playing Canada would have been a relatively uncomplicated matter. Three weeks, however, raised the very legitimate possibility that Federer would not have sufficient time to recover.

Through Sunday morning of that week in Montreal, the plan could not have worked any better. Federer played a bad match against David Ferrer but got through it. Otherwise, he didn’t lose a set in his other matches en route to the final. He had the points pickup, relatively minimal strain on his body, and every expectation of playing Cincinnati before resting and gearing up for a U.S. Open in which his chances looked great.

Then came the final against Alexander Zverev. Back spasms emerged, and in a heartbeat, everything about the Canada decision fell apart. The risk seemed worth it at the time of the decision, but it removed Cincinnati (one of his most successful tournaments) from the equation and hijacked his U.S. Open campaign. 

The lesson was painful, but obvious: Don’t overextend, especially after winning majors. Don’t come back to the tour for at least four weeks after winning a major. Being disciplined in scheduling is a signature Federer virtue. So what if Rafael Nadal intends to play Acapulco to try to preserve the No. 1 ranking? The disciplined Federer did not chase points outside of Canada last season, whereas Nadal chased points in Beijing and Bercy and — this should not be a point of debate — put his body under more strain. Nadal got the year-end No. 1 ranking he wanted and deserved, but he paid a price, and that strain continued to show up at the Australian Open. 

Federer’s discipline maximized his chances to win major No. 20 this past January, and by cracky, he did just that. If Nadal wants to play Acapulco and put his body through the four matches (three wins plus a semifinal appearance, win or lose) it would take to preserve No. 1, Federer — if focused on winning the biggest tournaments of the year — should let Rafa toil and push.

Federer might be serving up a Dutch treat in Rotterdam, and there’s nothing wrong with that in and of itself, but playing a 500 to not play one or more Masters 1000s plus Roland Garros — especially when that 500 comes so soon (two weeks) after the end of a major tournament — is not a reflection of the noted scheduling discipline which has done so much good for Federer’s career.

That burger-fries-and-shake combo meal better taste really good. Splurging can be done every now and then, as long as the cost doesn’t exceed the value.

Going Dutch might cost Federer a lot more than one meal.

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