ONE TO REMEMBER: In Hindsight, Federer’s Rotterdam Decision Looks Different

by Matt Zemek

When Roger Federer went to Montreal three weeks after the end of Wimbledon last year, he picked up the back spasms which derailed his late-summer season and ruined his U.S. Open campaign.

The message for a 36-year-old tennis player seemed to be: Don’t rush back to the tour after major tournaments… unless playing Laver Cup, which Federer did a few weeks after the U.S. Open.

Therefore, when Federer committed to play Rotterdam two weeks after his 2018 Australian Open championship, the move seemed to be an invitation to trouble… the key word being “seemed.”

It wasn’t. 

The spasms at this event weren’t the bursts of pain in a balky back, but the waves of pleasure which radiated through Federer and his fans — in The Netherlands and other places where tennis fans live.

The week could not have been more peRFect for the Swiss. It wasn’t just his ascension to the World No. 1 ranking at age 36, making him the oldest No. 1 in ATP history (since the rankings began in 1973), which defined the week. Capturing a 97th main-tour title didn’t even represent the zenith of the week for Federer. No, the full story of Federer’s ideal week is how little strain that body — and back — endured. 

Federer played only one set more than the minimum in his five matches (11). He played only two tiebreaker sets. He won two separate matches in under an hour. In the one match in which he lost a set — to Robin Haase in Friday’s quarterfinals — he steamrolled through the final two sets to secure his victory in 80 minutes. 

That’s right — Federer’s toughest match, going purely by sets lost, lasted under one and a half hours. Philipp Kohlschreiber gave Federer the toughest two-set battle of the week, but once the German failed to win the first set, there was little doubt that the match would end any other way.

Whether Federer does play Dubai or not, the mere reality that he CONSIDERED playing the tournament offers an indication of how healthy Federer felt at the end of the week. The decision regarding Dubai is not based on current fitness, but on managing and juggling commitments in a way which will enable Federer to be fresh for Indian Wells, the first Masters 1000 event of the season. Federer plays a charity match in San Francisco before Indian Wells. Playing in Dubai would compress his calendar.

By giving any thought to Dubai, Federer is telegraphing how good he feels. 

Yes, this decision was a good one. This was no Montreal. Federer might have picked up 600 points in French Canada and only 500 in Rotterdam, but his physical state exiting these two tournaments shortly after majors could not be more different. 

I can admit it: I was wrong. This was a good decision. My worries about it did not mesh with the week’s events.

One thing I underestimated about Federer’s decision was brought up by tennis podcaster and #TennisTwitter correspondent Sanket Singbal. He made the point that while returning to No. 1 due to a Rafael Nadal loss in Acapulco would have represented a big moment for Federer, it wouldn’t carry the same resonance as getting No. 1 by winning a match himself. It matters that Federer had a chance to get No. 1 weeks before Nadal’s planned return to the tour in Mexico, but it mattered more that Federer was able to get No. 1 on his own racquet, not due to outside forces. The publicity — and joy — which attended the No. 1-clinching moment against Haase on Friday was a one-of-a-kind experience.

Normally,  players attaining a World No. 1 ranking represent profoundly satisfying personal moments, not the kinds of occasions when the rest of the tennis world stops. Yet, Friday was an exceptional case, due to the historic nature of crowning the oldest No. 1 ever. It felt different — bigger than other transfers of the No. 1 ranking — because it WAS different. To put a finer point on it, though, Federer getting No. 1 while sitting in Switzerland (or a hotel room in another locale) wouldn’t have carried the same resonance as what we saw on Friday in Rotterdam.

I can acknowledge that I insufficiently considered this dimension of playing in Rotterdam for Federer.

There is one more thing to be said about Federer’s decision before putting this topic to bed. What now with Nadal?

Because Federer didn’t merely make the semifinals but won the tournament, Nadal has a higher bar to clear to take back the ranking in the near future. Yet, paradoxically, Federer has taken pressure off Nadal in Acapulco by making Indian Wells the much more likely place where Rafa (defending round of 16 points) can overtake Federer (defending a champion’s point total).

In terms of the domino effects of Federer’s decision, Nadal is the next domino. Had Federer not played Rotterdam, Nadal would have needed three match wins in Acapulco to retain No. 1. Now that the math has changed, it will be interesting to see Nadal (who plainly did value the year-end No. 1 ranking last year, due to his decisions to play both Beijing and Bercy surrounding Shanghai) will handle the next six weeks. 

What is certain: Federer made a good decision to play Rotterdam. 

What is uncertain: Did Federer make a GREAT decision? Nadal will have a say in how that question is answered.

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