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Roundtable — The Roger Federer Schedule Formula

Tennis Accent Staff

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QUESTION: How must Roger Federer adjust his 2019 schedule, if at all, and should he try to play Bercy between Basel and the ATP Finals in an attempt to get more match play?

MERT ERTUNGA — @MertovsTDesk

For the rest of this year, Federer should not consider playing Paris Indoors unless he loses early (and I mean, early) in Basel and he feels that he needs more match play before the ATP Finals. Personally, I would like to see him pass on the Paris Indoors regardless of the result in Basel, and focus on the ATP Finals. A strong finish there makes his season an undeniable success.

As to his schedule in 2019, Marc Rosset mentioned in a thoughtful piece few months ago that Roger’s schedule can work against him if he does not go far in the few tournaments he enters. In 2017, the fact that he crushed the field through the spring season worked in his favor when he decided to pass on the clay-court season. This year, with approximately the same schedule, he was not able to perform as well. I do believe the amount of match play is important for Federer, because I firmly believe that he performs better and better as he accumulates wins. He is a phenomenal front-runner. Thus, I feel that playing progressively fewer tournaments is not the right decision.

I would like to see him reintegrate one ATP 1000 on clay and Roland Garros back to his schedule, and I refuse to believe that he has no chance to win them, or reach the finals, in those tournaments (provided good form, the path to winning is always there, details of that path to be explored another time). I would like to see him play at least five tournaments of elite status (3 ATP 1000, 2 majors) by the time Wimbledon comes around. He will still be ready for Halle and Wimbledon. He can still decide to pass on the clay-court season if he happens to excel in the spring, as in 2017.

As for the hardcourt U.S. Open swing and the fall, he can keep his current schedule. That makes four majors and several ATP 1000 tournaments. He and his seasoned team (Paganini, Luthi, and Co.) can figure out how to prepare for such a schedule without too much difficulty. In my opinion, it beats playing 3 majors and 4 ATP 1000s for the year, with the season mostly riding on success at Wimbledon.

ANDREW BURTON — @burtonad

Just over 10 years ago, in August of 2008, I sat in a journalists’ press conference at the Rogers Cup in Toronto. Roger Federer answered questions posed after his stunning defeat at the hands of Gilles Simon, a then little-known player. A month earlier, Federer had fallen to Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon, ending a five-title streak and presaging a change at the top of the ATP after years of Pax Federana.

Federer seemed stricken by the loss to Simon, and one of the journalists decided now was the right time to ask the 26-year-old if he was thinking of calling it quits:

To some extent, do you agree with Justine Henin’s decision to retire at the peak of her career?

ROGER FEDERER: Do I agree with that? Not today. Ask me another day. Please don’t kill me with questions like this.

“Please don’t kill me with questions like this.”

We’re a decade on, and Federer has had a steadily increasing drumbeat of questions about what he’s still playing for, how long he’ll keep coming back — witness our friends @TheTennisPodcast asking, “What do you think the final tipping point for Federer to call it a day will be?”

Our roundtable question has a medium-term element — adjusting the 2019 season — and a shorter-term question, whether Federer should try to get more match play at Bercy. But I don’t think you can answer either question without thinking long term, something Federer has proven exceptionally strategic about.

Federer has, I think, been very clear about what he wants to do — to be able to compete to win tournaments, which requires staying fresh but also playing enough matches to be able to prevail at the end of final sets, as he did twice in Shanghai and in a tight quarterfinal in Cincinnati against Stan Wawrinka. But there are hints that even his amazing stamina is beginning to dwindle – he has looked less explosive at the end of tournaments since going down to Borna Coric in the Halle final this year, and his defeat by John Millman in sweltering conditions in New York was the first time I’ve seen him laid low by the environment rather than an injury sustained in play.

Staying fresh is getting harder, which means that adding matches or tournaments is very unlikely. I can see Federer playing in Paris if he goes out in R32 or R16 in Basel, but not otherwise. Then, after the ATP Finals in London, the calendar resets, and Federer himself gets to answer the question: Is it one more year, or more than one?

He won’t tweet out the answer, or reveal it on Oprah. But I believe that (a) Federer wants to play one more time at Roland Garros and (b) he won’t do so in a year that he thinks he can win Wimbledon or the U.S. Open.

As things stand, I think his Plan A is to approach 2019 as he has 2017 and 2018, then reassess after the Australian Open and Masters 1000s in the U.S. A disappointing first quarter could mean there’s more gas left in the tank, and Rome and Paris could then come back into play because they’re enjoyable tournaments to play while energy levels are still high.

Or it could be the signal that the tipping point has been reached. Only Federer knows when the long term shifts from an 18-month horizon to 6 months.

MATT ZEMEK — @mzemek

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Mert and Andrew both gave great answers above to this question, but as you can see, those answers represent two different sides of the coin. I find myself torn between those two competing impulses.

I should add that Mert’s answer is more connected to a belief in what Federer is capable of doing. Andrew’s answer is more rooted in a detached assessment of Federer’s modus operandi and the thought process attached to it. I think in many ways, both are right – Mert in thinking that Federer can play more tournaments without suffering physically, Andrew in laying out where Federer’s thought process probably stands.

On the Bercy question, I think that unless Federer loses in the R16 of Basel (or earlier), he should skip that tournament in France. Yes, a big points opportunity is there, but if Federer goes deep in Basel, he will be toasted for Paris, and that serves no one’s best interests. I also think that Federer has carried a specific plan through the first 10 months of 2018. Why change the plan now? It is in the offseason that Federer should reconsider his methods.

What can I say that Mert and Andrew haven’t said? Two things:

1) Rotterdam was not part of Federer’s original 2018 scheduling plan. It was an improvised move. I wrote about it at the time at Tennis With An Accent.

While I was wrong about the decision in certain ways – chiefly, that I ignored the value of earning the World No. 1 ranking by winning a match, as opposed to watching the rankings change when Rafael Nadal pulled out of Acapulco – my instincts were correct in terms of noting that the decision was likely to carry a cost. I was wrong about Federer not playing Miami, but it also has to be said that Federer barely played Miami. He lost his first match to Thanasi Kokkinakis. He was tired at the end of Indian Wells. Rotterdam threw Indian Wells and Miami off course, which in terms of points was not productive. The value of having a World No. 1 ceremony in The Netherlands was the tradeoff. That kind of tension should be kept in mind when considering Federer’s 2019 schedule.

2) Federer’s 2017 schedule was bold and unconventional at the time. When that scheduling plan worked, it became natural to follow it in 2018. I think that in 2019, Federer should try to do something bold and unconventional again. Why shouldn’t this revolutionary figure try, in these final years before he retires, to experiment and tinker? Why not treat 2019 differently from 2017 and 2018 in an attempt to give him more information and options for 2020 and, should he choose to play it, 2021?

Consider this point: If Novak Djokovic had not restored his game, maybe the 2017-2018 template would make more sense. However, with Djokovic on top of tennis, Federer might want to play portions of 2019 in ways that are different from what he has done before. Federer, it is widely acknowledged, was stubborn about sticking with the smaller racquet face until he lost to Sergiy Stakhovsky at Wimbledon in 2013. Imagine if he had switched two or three years earlier. Federer can do that with scheduling in 2019, before he reaches the end of the line.

I personally think Federer will play through 2020 at minimum. The question is if he will make 2021 his last season or call it a career after 2020. Assuming 2020 is the last hurrah, 2019 is a year in which to try things he hasn’t tried before.

My thought: Play a conventional style of tennis at the Australian Open and then in Indian Wells and Miami. See if the level of play comes appreciably close to Federer’s standards. If it does, stay on course. If not, Federer should play clay in 2019 and use it as a laboratory to try new things such as more net rushing to shorten points and matches, reducing strain on his body. So what if he picks up a few losses and doesn’t look good? He can “gather information,” as he likes to say, for the rest of the year and, moreover, his career.

Extending a career is good, but extending a career while remaining supremely ambitious is better. Federer’s skipping of clay in 2017 – an unorthodox move — served him well at Wimbledon, but now it seems time for a newly unconventional plan. Expanding boundaries, not just safeguarding risk avoidance, has marked Federer’s career. The needle needs to move more toward adventure and away from caution, because at this stage of his journey, really – just how much does Roger Federer have to lose?

The Tennis With An Accent staff produces roundtable articles and other articles with group input during the tennis season. Staff articles belong to the TWAA family of writers and contributors, as opposed to any individual commentator. Our staff produces roundtables every week of the tennis season, so that you will always know what the TWAA staff thinks about the important tennis topics of the times.

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