After three years away, Roger Federer returns to clay

MADRID -- When Roger Federer steps on court Tuesday night in Madrid for his first match on clay in three years, he will do so with hope and unburdened by expectation. Limited by injury to five clay matches in 2016 and having avoided the surface entirely in 2017 and 2018 to focus on Wimbledon, the 37-year-old is back -- and everyone, including his fellow players, is excited.

Madrid has been rolling out the red carpet for the 20-time Grand Slam champion the past few days. In a country that has enjoyed Rafael Nadal's success for well over a decade, it is Federer's face that adorns most of the advertising posters around Spain's capital. When it was announced Federer would be playing at the Madrid Open, ticket sales went through the roof.

"I'm happy that the decision I took last, I guess around December, when I started feeling like I definitely want to do the clay, that it was the right decision," Federer said in Madrid on Sunday. "I haven't looked back at the clay-court buildup yet or [at] everything that I have been doing [and thought] maybe I shouldn't have [done something or not]. I'm happy I'm here, and I'm happy I'm on the surface.

"I have not high expectations in some ways, but at the same time, I also know that things are possible. Madrid always plays fast with the altitude, so [I am] intrigued to find out myself. But it's been good so far."

Federer began practicing on clay only last month, having last played on the surface at the Italian Open in 2016, when, affected by lingering injuries, he lost to Dominic Thiem in the third round.

Considering Federer won Wimbledon in 2017 after skipping the clay circuit -- reaping the benefit of rest while others toiled on the dirt -- his return is something of a surprise. Out of the clay habit for three years, the movement takes getting used to, and the risk of injury is that much greater. But although Wimbledon remains his No. 1 goal, he has been planning this for a while.

"You have to be ready for long rallies and long matches, so you have to work on different things for your endurance," Federer said. "I had already started doing that in December because we knew then that there was a good chance that I was going to play on clay this year. It was only last month that I actually started my clay-court training, but when I was training in December, I was also working with clay in mind.

"You have to put in the hours on clay again. You have to get used to sliding. It's about the different pressures that clay puts on your thigh and calf muscles compared with grass, for example. When you're playing on grass it's more about explosivity. Here, it's a bit more about endurance. You just have to work on that. The work is difficult and it's hard. You have to be ready for long rallies and long matches, so you have to work on different things for your endurance."

With no ranking points to defend, there is no pressure on Federer in Madrid, other than the pressure he puts on himself to perform. And the rest of the field expects him to play well.

"His record on clay is pretty stunning," Thiem, the runner-up at Roland Garros last year and arguably the biggest threat to Nadal both here in Madrid and next month at the French Open, said recently. "He reached so many semifinals and finals, and if there wouldn't be Rafa, probably he would have won six, seven French Open titles. That was his only problem, I would say. He's playing amazing tennis, he won Dubai, finals Indian Wells and won Miami. He just has to adjust to the clay so he will come out very strong in Madrid and at the French Open."

Federer joked that he would have to remember how to slide, the key movement on clay, but Nadal said recently that Federer would not have much difficulty. "Roger always is a candidate," Nadal said. "Let's see how he's able to adapt his game again to the clay after a while without playing on clay. I don't think it will be a big trouble for him, because he has the talent."

At age 37, Federer will not have too many more chances to play again on clay, but there is no talk of retirement. Listening to him in Madrid on Sunday, it seems he is enjoying relearning the nuances that are not found on the other, faster surfaces.

"It takes some time getting used to how to construct the points maybe a little bit more," Federer said. "Because there is more baseline [play], there is a possibility to play with more angles and height. I guess, off a hard ball you can roll it and spin it and go loopy, whereas on a faster court you almost have to hit against it. It is hard to take pace off the ball. So, from that standpoint, it's been interesting and fun."

Federer will play Richard Gasquet of France in his first match in Madrid. If the seedings go to plan, a quarterfinal against Thiem would be an early test of his Roland Garros hopes.

World No. 1 Novak Djokovic has little doubt Federer can do well in both Madrid and Paris.

"He's been playing some great tennis lately," Djokovic said last month. "... I don't see any particular big issue for him playing on this surface. He has more chance to win other slams than Roland Garros, but he has won Roland Garros in the past. He hasn't played it for the last few years, but it's hard to speak about Roger's level because it's always there. It's always at its highest."