Tennis: Federer welcomes end of break

Roger Federer and his wife Mirka applaud the winners of the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at the Yas Marina circuit last month. The Swiss tennis player uses nearby Dubai as his off-season training base.
Roger Federer and his wife Mirka applaud the winners of the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at the Yas Marina circuit last month. The Swiss tennis player uses nearby Dubai as his off-season training base.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Retirement not on Swiss' mind as he bids to return with a bang in the new year

NEW YORK • The Federer family has shared many a road trip, but, in this unusually settled period, the patriarch and primary breadwinner has been fielding more and more questions.

"The kids were asking, 'When are we leaving again?'" Roger Federer said in an interview from Dubai on Friday. "Because they were happy to get back on the road. It was like, 'When are we going the next time to Australia or the next time to New York? And I've been saying 'Not for a while'."

But the next family business trip is now fast approaching. Federer is set to return to action next month in Perth, Australia, at the Hopman Cup team event before returning in earnest at the Australian Open in Melbourne.

The Swiss tennis player has not played a match since July 8, when he lost in five sets to Milos Raonic in the semi-finals at Wimbledon. In the last set, he took an awkward and uncharacteristic tumble on the grass that was too easy to see as a metaphor for the decline of a great, balletic champion.

He landed on his still-fragile left knee, which in February had required him to have surgery for the first time in his career, keeping him out for more than two months.

Though he got up slowly at Wimbledon and finished the match, he did not finish the season. He even missed the Rio Olympics, which had long been one of his major, late-career targets.

EAGER TO RETURN

Andy's a great story. Novak's a great story. Rafa obviously is always going to be a good story. Me coming back is hopefully going to be a nice story to follow, too. I think the beginning of the year, especially the Australian summer, is going to be epic.

ROGER FEDERER, on the prospect of returning to men's tennis after a long injury break.

While his long-time rivals Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic duked it out for the No. 1 ranking and his countryman Stan Wawrinka won the US Open, Federer got a taste of retirement with his longest break from the tour since he turned professional in 1998.

Now, he will try his hand at a staple of modern tennis: the comeback. And he will do so with a world ranking of No. 16, his lowest since 2001.

"It actually felt like I had my first real comeback in April when I came back in Monaco, especially having had surgery, because I never had surgery before," Federer said.

"So that felt like a real comeback to me, but this one feels bigger obviously because two months is not like six months. Clearly this comeback is going to have a different place in my career for sure."

The 35-year-old has little left to prove. He has already won a record 17 Grand Slam singles titles and 71 lesser titles. He has maintained a standard of excellence for far longer than most tennis champions do.

Although he said he has treasured his time away from the tour with his wife, Mirka, and their four young children, he insisted that no consideration had been given to making the break permanent.

"Mirka is totally committed, totally happy," he said. "The kids love it, and I'm still hungry, and now I'm even refreshed and rejuvenated." The question of retirement never came up.

For Federer, the question was instead, "Can I still do it? As a player, can my body still do it? Can my mind still do it?"

Those are particularly intriguing questions at a moment when so much talent - both rising and established - seems to be converging in the men's game.

Federer, as much a tennis aficionado as a tennis maestro, is well aware of the story lines. The old guard on the men's tour remains with Federer and Rafael Nadal, who at age 30 is returning from more injury problems of his own with a new coach in his team: Carlos Moya.

The new wave is full of promise, led by Dominic Thiem, Alexander Zverev and Nick Kyrgios, all of whom have beaten Federer.

There are also many established stars in their primes: from Raonic, Kei Nishikori and Juan Martin del Potro to the multiple Grand Slam champions Wawrinka, Murray and Djokovic.

"I think it actually creates a great story for next year," he said. "Andy's a great story. Novak's a great story. Rafa obviously is always going to be a good story. Me coming back is hopefully going to be a nice story to follow, too. I think the beginning of the year, especially the Australian summer, is going to be epic."

Federer said his decision to end his season after Wimbledon was made out of a desire to get the most out of what remains of his career.

After withdrawing from the French Open, ending his consecutive streak of Grand Slam appearances at 65, Federer came back for the grass-court season and Wimbledon knowing his knee was not quite right.

"I don't think it cost me the rest of the season by playing on the grass," he said. "I just think the knee and the body needed a break, and, taking six months off, I could take the time the body and knee required to heal.

"Now I can look back and say, 'Look, if now it doesn't go well, I did everything I possibly could. There are no regrets.' "

He said he took a particularly conservative approach this time around. "Especially the first three months, I was working out maybe one hour a day," he said.

When he did turn up the intensity with his long-time fitness coach Pierre Paganini, Federer said he often avoided training on consecutive days.

He started playing points again in early October, but he said he did not resume full on-court sessions until late last month after he left Switzerland for Dubai, his usual off-season training base.

He has been practising there frequently with the rising Frenchman Lucas Pouille, and on Thursday he planned to broadcast their practice session live on Periscope to give his fans an update on his progress.

The real test of how he is playing will have to wait for Australia, where his six-month preview of life without the tennis circuit will officially come to an end.

"I did get that taste of retirement," Federer said. "All of a sudden, I could be organised and say, 'Okay, we're going to be four weeks at home in a row. Who do you want to go for dinner with, Mirka?' Or who shall we catch up with?"

Federer enjoyed having that time with his family and the predictability of being in one place for more than a week at a time. Fortunately, he said, his knee held up and he was able to make the most of it.

"I think that was really exciting and good for us to have that time," he said. "And it felt good, you know? It did feel good, but it can totally wait. No problem for me. It can totally wait."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 20, 2016, with the headline 'Federer welcomes end of break'. Print Edition | Subscribe