Federer's clay-court return equal parts promising and frustrating

Roger Federer's oh-so-close loss in the quarterfinals of the Madrid Open didn't diminish an encouraging week of preparation as he takes aim at the French Open. Julian Finney/Getty Images

He had been so close, yet suddenly found himself so far.

That was Roger Federer's quandary at the end of the second set of his quarterfinal match with Dominic Thiem on Friday at the Madrid Masters. So close to making a very Federer-esque statement in his closely watched return to the Euroclay circuit after an absence of three years. So close to closing out the 25-year-old clay wizard Thiem with a virtuoso display of attacking tennis -- the kind that isn't supposed to work in this day and age on the hallowed red dirt.

Moments earlier, Federer was on the cusp of victory with two match points in a second-set tiebreaker. His backhand let him down on both occasions, and Thiem -- who had never led in the match -- went on to level the match at a set apiece.

Suddenly, Federer found himself so very far from his implicit goals of the spring. He returned to clay first and foremost because he enjoys playing -- on anything. But there's more to it for a competitor of Federer's class. He also embraced the challenge of demonstrating that for all the talk about his age (37) and the skills of his rivals, he still had the goods that made him the champion in Madrid three times, the 2009 French Open champion and, for many years, clearly the second-best player on clay behind Rafael Nadal.

Two match points but a moment later, dead even at a set all. And, eventually, Thiem took the third set to win the match 3-6, 7-6 (11), 6-4.

"It's been a good week," Federer said after the match. "Frustrating, clearly. Losing with match points is the worst, so that's how I feel. But nevertheless, if I take a step back, it's all good."

Such frustrations aren't unique to clay, but the surface that rewards consistency and patience over high-risk shot-making is awfully hard on aggressive players who don't make the most of their chances. That's one reason why, when asked in a pre-tournament press conference if he "missed" the long rallies and other features of the clay game, Federer replied, "I mean, look, not too much, to be quite honest with you."

The all-time men's Grand Slam singles champion might have doubled down on that sentiment if he knew in advance that his third opponent in Madrid would be Thiem. The No. 5 seed walloped Federer in the Rome Masters in 2016, in the last official match Federer had played on clay until this week. Thiem also mastered Federer in the Indian Wells final less than two months ago. Thiem also is one of just five men who have a positive head-to-head record against Federer. Young, bullish and full of topspin power, Thiem has fallen through the crack in generations -- too young to be part of the Big Four set, too old to be one of the heavily promoted Next Gen crew.

If Federer felt any apprehension, it certainly didn't show at the outset. He won the first three games, and with Thiem serving at 30-love in the fourth, Federer tried the tactic that created a sensation when he introduced it 2015: the SABR (Sneak Attack By Roger). That is, he charged forward to take a second serve by Thiem off his shoe tops with his backhand very near the service line. The ploy backfired on Federer (as it would one other time in the match), but the signal was clear: I'm coming for you, full bore.

Federer conducted a master class in modulated spot serving over the first two sets, averaging about 115 mph through most of the first two sets and putting 72 percent of his first serves in the box (he won 79 percent of those points). He also won a respectable 55 percent of his second serves and saved 10 of 12 break points. Federer played serve-and-volley tennis with audacity, saving some key points by following second serves to the net, where he was often rescued by his peerless volleying. Thiem didn't convert a break point until the critical third game of the final set.

In the run up to the Madrid Open and through his first two matches, Federer has downplayed the characteristics that make the clay game different from tennis on other surfaces. He said he had no trouble readapting to the surface he grew up on once he began training for Madrid in earnest in April at a small tennis club in the lap of the Swiss Alps.

"Not too much [trouble adjusting], funnily enough," he said in Madrid. "Look, it takes some time getting used to how to construct the points maybe a little bit more."

Federer clearly designed a more aggressive game plan against Thiem than against his two previous opponents, Richard Gasquet (who was just returning to the tour from injury) and an in-form Gael Monfils, who lost despite having two match points himself.

Thiem got off to a slow start and did not look good for most of the first two sets, but that was to a large degree because Federer kept him off balance by feeding him a variety of awkward questions. Federer played sharp angles, avoided the brutal rallies in which Thiem specializes, and kept him off balance and frustrated when the Austrian was returning.

It's cold comfort for Federer, but he came as close as possible to winning without actually doing it. That should be encouraging with the French Open barely more than two weeks away, considering Thiem's record as well as the early stage of Federer's return. The big question is whether Federer will be able to bring a comparably high level of successful attacking tennis to his upcoming matches, especially under slower conditions and over the course of five-set matches at Roland Garros.

"I feel very good about my game," Federer said. "I thought I had some good matches here, you know, especially last two. First one was good to get into it.

"And, obviously, Gael and Dominic are tough on the clay so it was a good battle. I feel good on the clay right now."