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Why did Roger Federer skip the French Open? Here's our theory

Roger Federer last played the French Open in 2015, when he lost to Stan Wawrinka in the quarterfinals. EPA/MARK R. CRISTINO

The only surprising thing about Roger Federer's decision to skip the French Open was the timing of his announcement. He made it Monday, just hours after his career nemesis on clay, Rafael Nadal, won the Madrid Open.

"The start to the year has been magical for me, but I need to recognize that scheduling will be the key to my longevity moving forward," Federer wrote on his website. "Thus, my team and I concluded today that playing just one event on clay was not in the best interest of my tennis and physical preparation for the remainder of the season."

Did Nadal scare Federer away from Paris? It is certainly a logical question, given that the 18-time Grand Slam-winning Federer would have ventured onto European clay for the first time this year at Roland Garros. And Madrid was Nadal's third consecutive title on clay this year.

But the more tantalizing way to interpret this is that Federer is sending a message: "You can have the French. I'll see you at Wimbledon, bub."

Federer had a spectacular early hard-court season, at the end of which he expressed a desire to compete at Roland Garros. But it had the earmarks of a ceremonial appearance, because he was unequivocal about sitting out all the Euroclay tuneup events that prepare the contenders for the year's second major.

Up to that point in early April, Federer and Nadal had shared the limelight. Each rebounded from a dismal 2016 with comebacks that have been as improbable as they have been sensational. They were suddenly embroiled in a renewal of their storied rivalry, leaving struggling Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic, ranked Nos. 1 and 2 respectively, deep in the shade. Federer has hammered out a 19-1 record so far this year, locking up the Australian Open title and two Masters trophies. He bested Nadal in three matches, including the Aussie and Miami finals.

At 35, Federer will pick his tournaments very carefully and do everything in his power to stay sharp and hungry, both mentally and physically. He will not be swayed by his fans' desire for or tennis pundits' musings about going for the calendar Grand Slam, no matter how great he has played of late. And he may not want to waste the psychic capital he's built up.

Nadal still holds a 23-14 career edge against Federer, partly due to a 13-2 career superiority on clay. At 30 and healthy at long last, Nadal appears to be flourishing under his heavy workload. But the Spaniard's play on grass is a different story. Federer is still 2-1, but the two stars last faced off on turf almost nine years ago -- a testament to Nadal's woeful performance on the surface in the later years of his career. Nadal has played Wimbledon four times since 2012, and he's lost to a pro ranked No. 100 or lower each time. It's easy to see why Federer would prefer to meet Nadal at Wimbledon rather than at Roland Garros.

There's a bigger picture here as well. The continuing struggles of Murray and Djokovic have opened up the possibility that Nadal or Federer might finish the year ranked No. 1.

The players' paths won't cross at Roland Garros, but with any luck, they will at Wimbledon or later in New York.