Low expectations before Wimbledon but ready to surprise himself in Doha: Federer in his own words

Ahead of his long awaited return to the ATP Tour at this week’s Qatar Total Open in Doha, Roger Federer opens up to the media about the severity of his knee injury, his hopes for the 2021 season and why he made the decision to come back to tennis at the age of 39.

Roger Federer, Doha

Roger, how excited are you to make your return to competition here in Qatar then?

I’m very happy to be back playing a tournament again. It’s been a long time. I never thought I was going to take this long. I always enjoyed playing here. Looking forward to the start here, either on Tuesday or Wednesday.

Sports have changed dramatically during the pandemic. You received a great deal of warmth from the crowd over the years. How do you expect you will adapt to these new circumstances?

I’m really looking forward to see how it’s going to play out for me also. I had enough time to watch matches without the fans and wonder how it must feel for the players. And I’m trying to put myself into their shoes and see what would they be feeling. In the early rounds, I don’t think it makes a huge difference, to be honest.

We play a lot of matches and practice matches like this. But then when it comes to the crunch, quarters, semis and finals especially, and you’re playing top 10 guys, I feel like it would get very strange. You know, you’re playing for so much, but in front of nobody. I felt a little bit bad, obviously, for fans and players, watching those those tournaments being played out at the later stages of the other tournament. I’m just happy I’m playing again. I’m excited to experience how it will feel, even though I don’t want this to stay like this. Nobody does.

I’m hearing that we’re going to have maybe two thousand people on centre court here in Doha. I feel like almost normal circumstances because two thousand people can make a lot of noise. Anything other than zero. You know, you have some passionate people out there.

ROGER FEDERER - Africa

Have you thought about how you want to build your season? What are the kind of landmarks in the season that are most important to you? Are you looking at the grass and the Olympics? 

At this moment, I feel like it’s just ‘let’s see how matches go, let’s see how training goes with all the top guys’. So from this standpoint, it’s still building up to being stronger, better, fitter, faster and all that stuff. So I hope then by Wimbledon, I’m going to be 100 percent. And from then on, then the season really starts for me. Everything until then, it’s just ‘let’s see how it goes’. I might surprise myself, which I actually have already done in practice the last three weeks. I was surprised how well it actually did go, but let’s see how things go. Everything starts hopefully with the grass. 

Do you think something like this injury could actually extend your career because it could keep you fresh for longer?

Good question. I haven’t heard that much like people saying I should retire by now and I haven’t read a lot in the media about me. I tried to stay also out of the media as much as I possibly could. As long as you haven’t officially retired, you’re still going. I do believe that what you miss through injuries, you can add it to the back end of your career. For somebody like myself who has played over almost 1300 matches, you know, breaks are always welcome and we take them with happiness sometimes, even though it’s tough, you know, to be hurt and being home. But I did enjoy my time at home after twenty years on tour. Having used that period in a different way has been actually quite nice. But I’ve missed my second family, like how I call the tennis tour.

The knee is going to dictate how the comeback will be, how the results will be, how long I can still keep doing this. And then, of course, there are other factors in private life and just everyday life that’s going to dictate how long I can keep doing this. But look, I know it’s more than the rare side for almost a 40-year old to come back after a year being out. And I was surprised how long it took. But I took a decision quite early with the team that I wanted to take the time. No rush to get back on tour. What’s important is that I’m injury free, pain free, and I can actually enjoy myself out there on tour. So we’ll see how it goes. Now, I’m curious myself to find out.

What do you think is the hardest thing for you? Is it getting used to the competition? Or what’s the last thing that comes back that makes you think: OK, now I’m ready. I’ve got my fitness back. 

I don’t know. For me, tennis is like riding a bike, you know, I know how to do that. So that doesn’t really worry me. I’ve always also been a guy who can play very little, but then play very well. And that’s maybe also where my longevity has been good. If I’m concerned about anything, it’s about the knee. Having had double knee surgery, it’s a challenge. I’ve never had to experience that before. The second knee surgery, I started from scratch.

The next three to five months will be interesting, just to see, like when I came back in 2017, how is the knee going to react when you fly transatlantic? When you go from time zone to time zone, how is it backing up best of five set matches? How is it playing four days straight? Three brutal sets against top players? All these are unanswered questions. I need to give myself those answers, but that’s really the only real concern I have. I did everything I possibly could. So clearly I’m confident. Otherwise I wouldn’t put myself in this position this week here in Doha. But I have a lot to look forward to and some uncertainty, which is normal once you’ve been out for so long.

Would see yourself lifting the trophy or you’re not looking at that at the moment? 

No, no, no, no, no. I mean, yes, in a vision, I see myself with the trophy because I’ve seen the pictures around here of me holding up three times the trophy. And it feels good seeing those pictures again. And you get an inspiration from it. See, I’m a winner, I’m a player. You want to be there, but honestly, if I can complete several matches, I will. What I know is once this tournament is over, I will be happy leaving the court because I know I played a tournament again. So expectations are really low, but I hope I can surprise myself and maybe others. I know that people will think that, you know, the measuring stick will only be titles and trophies and finals and semis. And I’m happy people think of me that way. But honestly, the expectations are in a completely different place for me. Yes, like you said, things have changed tremendously.

We haven’t seen you since the Australian Open in 2020. Can you just clarify: did you think about retirement at any moment or any situation, with your family or inner circle, when the rehab perhaps wasn’t going well ? Did you ever get to that point? Or did you always think you would return to the tennis court?

I mean, I think it’s normal that, through the period of one year, you will always have some conversations with your team and your family about ‘where do we go from here?’ It was not imminent. After the match for Africa in Capetown (Feb 6th 2020), the goal was to be ready for Wimbledon. Right? ‘Let’s do the surgery very quickly here so I have the time to get ready.’ I didn’t expect complications to come about and they came about. Just like that, honestly, the knee was just swelling up, it was not doing well, I would go for walks with the kids or go for a bike ride, come back, and have a swollen knee.

And I couldn’t understand what was happening because training was actually going very well during the first four or five weeks. And progress was quick. So after the second one, I mean, obviously I was down. I couldn’t believe I had to do a second one. And this is definitely a moment where you can maybe question everything a little bit more because you know that Wimbledon is not happening, and then the pandemic at this point hit bad. And you don’t know what that means and how long that’s going to be around. But what I knew was, regardless if I do come back or not, I wanted to go out on my terms and not finish on the Australian Open and the match for Africa. I wanted to do this rehab anyhow.

Roger Federer

Regardless of any tournament, I want to be healthy. I want to go skiing with my children and my friends and go play basketball and football and do all these things. I feel like if I can do all these things, I can play professional sports. For me, it was always clear that I was going to try to do that. So retirement was never really on the cards. I think it’s really a conversation like ‘if the knee, let’s say, keeps bothering me for months and months to come, then then we have to look at it’. That’s normal, but this is not the time to think about that. Maybe in the fall of this year, because then I will have played enough matches and enough tournaments to really analyse that. For now, I’m just really happy that I’ve made the long and hard road with my physios, with my doctors, with my coaches, fitness trainers, because in a way, I’ve enjoyed it. I don’t mind doing rehab for them. They’re impressed by me, how I go about it, the work ethic. But for me it’s only normal because I want to be a healthy person. It actually was a challenge. I like challenges. Now we’re looking forward to what’s to come.

Are you pain free with your knee ? Are there doubts, questions you ask yourself?

Yeah, there’s question marks all over. It’s normal. I don’t know how to explain when you come back from injury, you know. I don’t want to say that’s the biggest challenge, but the biggest challenge is just to trust yourself 100 percent again, trust in the capabilities of your body. Can you stop on a dime? Can you sprint whenever you want ? On the court, you don’t have time to think. The body and the opponent don’t allow you that luxury, and the opponent feels it, if you’re not 100 percent.

In tennis, we don’t have a substitute. You want to be really sure that you can actually play at the highest of levels. I feel like I’m back at a good level right now. The best one? No chance, because I haven’t played any matches so far yet. There are still a lot of doubts flying about. In the morning when I wake up, I feel actually pretty good. I don’t feel like a broken man, that that’s something really positive. The pain is completely, completely under control. It’s good, compared to where I was four or five months ago. I’m in such a wonderful position now that I can actually play, you know, I don’t know, five days straight to two and a half hours, and that’s something I didn’t expect me doing this time of the year. There’s a lot of positives, but I also still understand what’s not going so well yet. It’s really hard to answer the question, but I’m trying to give you as much information as I can because quite honestly, I don’t know myself yet. And the matches, again, are different stories.

Would you say that your main motivation was because you were desperate to go out on your own terms? Or a part of it was the belief and the desire to continue to be able to win major titles ? 

I just feel like the story’s not over yet. I don’t know how to explain. It’s not like for one particular reason why I wanted to keep on playing tennis, other than I enjoy playing tennis. I enjoy being on the road. I’m still a work in progress. But probably, one of the other reasons is that I would like to get that high again, playing against the best players, playing in the biggest tournaments, winning them hopefully, and being in the conversation. Hopefully I’ll play long enough to see crowds again.

Is there a chance to see you eating pasta in Rome in May?

Like I said before, I think I have to get through Doha first, then see about Dubai, then I go back into training for over a month and then we’ll see about the clay court season. Obviously I will have much, much more information after Doha and we’re talking daily to the team. So far, there are green lights all around. Everything’s positive. We’re happy to be here. But things go by very quickly when you have four children. And, you know, I always have lots to do. So life’s busy in a good way. So I’m just enjoying myself and like I explained before, let’s let’s see how it goes, and I have not made up my mind yet about the clay court season, I really don’t know yet.

How much are you following the Tour? And what was some of the standout storylines for you those latest months?

Well, I mean, I think being involved in the ATP council and seeing how hard it was to start the tour up again, was big because switching off the engine is easy. You just turn the key and it’s done. But turning it on was a huge effort from the tournament directors. I still admire them for putting on events without fans. I know they get relief through paying less prize money. Also the players are going through a really hard time on the tour. That’s what stands out the most, just how hard it’s been for everybody around the world. This pandemic, being front and centre in the media, day in, day out, there’s not a day that goes by where you don’t talk or think about it. Having the tour back, I think it’s great. I am sure millions of tennis fans watch it.

The US Open was a big thing for me. Just seeing Dominic (Thiem) winning his first Grand Slam title under unreal circumstances with Zverev, you know, who both deserve their first Slam. It broke my heart that there were no fans, but really happy for Dominic. Rafa’s reign at the French continues. Medvedev’s run was fantastic. At the end of the season, Rublev has been doing wonderful. Novak’s keeping it up in Australia again was impressive. I watched quite a lot, actually, as much as I possibly could. I mean, I’m not just spending hours and hours in front of the TV watching all the matches, but a lot of highlights and making sure I stay up to speed.

And funnily enough, I did the same, I believe, in 2016. And then, I just wanted to know what’s going on. You know, I go check scores every single day, every hour to know what’s going on in challengers and futures. Even in the doubles, you know. I enjoy the sport and I cannot look the other way. If I try to look the other way, I know it’s fake. It’s not me. When I look the other way, it’s because I’m busy. But in all honesty, I followed it very closely and I was impressed how high actually the level of play was, even with no fans of every level of fans. It was great to see.

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