Am I making too big a deal out of Roger Federer gaining ground in the race for a top-four seed at Roland Garros? Maybe… but I hasten to say this is not principally about Federer. No, really — it isn’t.
Federer getting the No. 4 seed would rate as a very big story, and I am indeed giving it a lot of attention after Alexander Zverev and Dominic Thiem both lost in the Monte Carlo round of 16 on Thursday. Federer’s chances of getting that No. 4 seed increased to a considerable degree.
It matters a lot… but it matters not primarily because of Federer.
Confused? I will explain.
Federer getting the No. 4 seed in Paris, should he achieve that goal in the next month, would obviously matter for him. No Rafa or Djokovic until the semis. Federer would love to be in a half with Djokovic and a quarter adjacent to Thiem. He would like Thiem and Djokovic to play a marathon quarterfinal, slip through the draw, and see if he can hit the jackpot. Of course he would like that.
Yet, if we are being realistic about all this, Federer is — in my opinion — not a leading contender for Roland Garros. It is valid and reasonable to disagree, but surely, one can understand why Federer would not be considered a top-tier threat in France. Staying away from clay for nearly three whole years is not generally a good way to make a big run at Roland Garros.
Getting a top-four seed would be great, but if we are focused on a much bigger picture in men’s tennis in 2019, the real story — the largest degree of news value — attached to this scenario would not be that Federer GAINED a top-four seed. It would be that Zverev or Thiem, one of the two, did NOT get a top-four seed.
THAT is the headliner here, should this scenario become reality one month from now.
Federer might not be a contender in Paris (again, a debatable point), but Thiem certainly is. Zverev’s clay-court chops make it hard to completely write him off in France. If Thiem or Zverev, currently battling Federer for top-four positioning, fail to make the top four, it could have considerable consequences not just for Rolly G, but for the rest of 2019 at the majors.
Think about it: Let’s say Zverev doesn’t do well at all in Madrid or Rome and falls to the No. 5 seed. He might have to play Rafa or Djokovic in the quarterfinals (and if he avoids one of the two, he could still face Thiem). Not being inside the top four would dramatically reduce his chances of making a first major semifinal, a milestone he needs to attain to quiet the doubts about his career — internal doubts AND external ones alike.
Let’s consider a world in which Thiem is the 5 seed, not Zverev. Thiem is defending 1,200 points from his Roland Garros final. A quarterfinal loss in Paris would cause a substantial point loss, pushing him down in the rankings. Being the 5 seed — putting him in the possible path of Rafa or Nole in the quarters — makes a big point loss a much bigger possibility.
Losing a large chunk of points, when Thiem does not have the grass-court results to stack up very well in Wimbledon’s grass-adjusted seeding formula, would probably put Thiem outside the top four at Wimbledon this year. Thiem would not be able to gain traction in the rankings. He will be defending substantial — though not enormous — point totals at the U.S. Open and Bercy in the back stretch of the 2019 season. Being the 5 seed at the French Open could create a domino effect in which Thiem gets stuck outside the top four and runs into a quarterfinal brick wall at the next several majors, a terrible development for a player trying to enter the prime of his career.
Federer getting the 4 seed at a tournament where he is not likely to do very much — Wimbledon remains the focus for the Swiss, as it should — is something Roger obviously wants. Yet, it is not a central focus of his 2019 season and its ambitions. Zverev and Thiem, far more than Federer, truly NEED a top-four seeding slot in Paris.
After Thursday in Monte Carlo, only one seems likely to get that slot. The Thiem-Zverev-Federer battle for a top-four seed in Paris means a lot more to the younger guys than the old man.