Roger Federer, who has been in rare form at 35, announced on Monday that he will not play in the French Open, which begins in two weeks, and will instead focus on the grass-court and hardcourt events ahead, including Wimbledon and the United States Open.
This will be the first year since Federer turned professional in 1998 that he will not play a tour event on clay.
“I’ve been working really hard, both on and off the court, during the last month, but in order to try and play on the ATP World Tour for many years to come, I feel it’s best to skip the clay-court season this year,” he said in a statement. “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.”
Smart and selective scheduling has played a big role in Federer’s enduring excellence. He is the most successful men’s player of the Open era, with 18 Grand Slam singles titles, but his performance in 2017 has surpassed even his own expectations.
After a six-month layoff to heal his left knee, he won his first Grand Slam title in nearly five years at the Australian Open in January, beating his longtime nemesis Rafael Nadal in a five-set final. Federer then swept to the titles in the prestigious tournaments in Indian Wells, Calif., and Miami.
He is 19-1 in 2017, with the only loss having come in the second round in Dubai against the Russian qualifier Evgeny Donskoy.
But after playing in a record 65 consecutive Grand Slam singles tournaments, Federer will have missed three of the last five by skipping the French Open, which begins May 28, for a second straight year.
Federer won the title at Roland Garros in 2009 and has reached the final four other times. In his statement, he said he looked forward to seeing the French fans in Paris next year, but at this stage of his career, with little left to prove and plenty of mileage on his balletic frame, there are no certainties.
“I’m very confident that Roger will play the French Open again,” Severin Lüthi, Federer’s longtime coach and close friend, said in a telephone interview from Switzerland on Monday. “He can play a different schedule next year. It’s not because he’s not playing the French this year that he’s done with it. It’s not because he is not playing on clay this year that he won’t be playing on it more again in the years ahead.”
Lüthi called the decision to withdraw “a very tough one” and said it was settled on Monday after “a few days” of training on red clay in Switzerland.
“We always said we were going to take the decision around the 10th of May,” Lüthi said. “We just wanted to have all the information and also wait a little to see how practice went and how he feels.”
Lüthi said Federer was healthy. Federer had expressed concern about how his postoperative left knee might respond to returning to clay-court tennis, but Lüthi said the knee was not a factor in Federer’s withdrawal from the French Open.
“You never know,” Lüthi said. “You don’t have the guarantee that you are not getting hurt, but really the knee is in perfect shape, so that luckily was not an issue.”
Federer’s team ultimately decided that it was not worth the risk to make the transition to clay for just one event.
“For the body, with the change of surface, at one stage, you maybe pay the price for it a little bit,” Lüthi said. “So I’m really convinced this is a good decision.”
In an effort to remain physically and mentally fresh, Federer has not played on tour since beating Nadal in the Miami Open final on April 2, although Federer did play two exhibition matches for his foundation during this layoff.
“This is more of an investment for the future,” Lüthi said. “The goal is to keep on playing ultimately for many more years on tour, and that’s why he has to make priorities, and unfortunately the French Open was not the highest priority in this case.”
Winning an eighth Wimbledon is clearly Priority No. 1. Federer’s most recent triumph at the All England Club was in 2012. He was a finalist in 2014 and 2015 and a semifinalist last year in an otherwise downbeat season. Wimbledon remains his favorite tournament, and grass probably remains his best canvas. His career record on grass is 152-23, his best winning percentage on any surface.
Federer plans to return to the tour for the German grass-court events in Stuttgart and Halle in June before Wimbledon.
“For me, the most important thing is that he’s healthy, which is the case now and for the last few weeks and months,” Lüthi said. “And the positive point is he can play two tournaments before Wimbledon. You don’t have the guarantee to always come back and immediately win the tournament.
“For Roger, it’s not that easy, even if people think it looks like that. He has these two tournaments, and if, let’s say, it would not go his way, he still has enough time to practice on grass for Wimbledon. He’s also going to be fresh and motivated and inspired, and that’s also very important.”
Federer is back up to fifth in the ATP rankings but is second in the season-long points race behind Nadal, who has dominated the clay-court season and who will be a heavy favorite to win a 10th French Open singles title.
Did Nadal’s recent play — sweeping the titles in Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Madrid — make it just a bit easier for Federer to skip the French?
“Yeah, but I think it’s important you more look at it from your own side,” Lüthi said. “Roger, if he’s playing a tournament, in my eyes, he’s always able to win it and beat anyone on any surface. And on the other side, for me, even if Rafa is the big favorite in Paris, you never know what is going to happen. He could lose early or be injured or sick, so that was not really part of the decision-making, how Rafa was playing on clay.”
Even with Nadal in top form, the world’s most prestigious clay-court tournament will be shorter on star power than usual. Serena Williams, a 23-time Grand Slam singles champion, will be absent because she is pregnant. It is also unclear whether the two-time French Open champion Maria Sharapova will be awarded a wild card into the event after her 15-month suspension for a doping violation. The French Tennis Federation is set to announce its decision on Tuesday.
But Federer’s plans are already clear. Next destination: Stuttgart. Next major objective: Wimbledon.