Federer prepares for return

Story credit to Christopher Cleary & the New York Times
Roger Federer playing a five-set match against Marin Cilic at Wimbledon in June. Federer said he felt “fresh in the feet” after that match, a welcome departure after foot problems he has battled for some time.CreditTony O'Brien/Reuters 

Summer is coming, the Australian summer, and Roger Federer is preparing to return to competitive tennis in January at the Hopman Cup in Perth after a six-month injury break, the first such extended break of his career.

Federer, the 17-time Grand Slam singles champion who is now 35, spoke with The New York Times on Friday from his training base in Dubai about the coming season and about his family, which now includes two sets of twins: 7-year-old daughters Charlene Riva and Myla Rose, and 2-year-old sons Lenny and Leo.

Here are some excerpts from the interview, which has been edited and condensed.

On his progress after ending his 2016 season in July because of left knee problems:

The last five, six months have been interesting in the sense that I did have days where I hoped that progress would be faster and then had another day where I would wake up, and I felt there was progress. So I went through my ups and downs, but I mean if I had to compare it, it was 90 percent up and 10 percent down. When I was down, it didn’t last long.

On how he spent his break away from tennis:

For me, honestly, it was really most important just to spend maximum time with my wife, Mirka, and my kids because this time, when they are young like this, it never comes back to me. I agree that I could have gone into looking into completely different things in my life, what other interests I have, but I feel like that can wait and that should come after.

Most important to me is the family, and that’s why for me that was the No. 1 thing, that I was going to try to spend maximum time with them and really just do some cool things and not miss this. Because the girls had our full attention when the boys weren’t around, and the boys always have had the girls. It’s always busy, so it was nice to have that extra time for the boys and still have a good chunk of time with the girls.

On how hard it was to watch tennis from afar:

I must say I was surprised how easy it was for me all the way up until Shanghai [in October], and then when I started to feel better, when I was able to play points again, I started to miss the tournaments like Shanghai, Basel and the World Tour Finals. All the sudden, I felt like in some crazy way I could be playing with these guys again. Obviously, I should not, because I would get injured again, maybe, but that’s when I started to miss it.

Before that, I felt I was so far off even being in the draw that I actually didn’t miss it. The Rio Olympics — I’ve never been to Rio, so I don’t really know what I missed. The U.S. Open, I wasn’t ready. I wouldn’t have been able to play best-of-five sets. There was no point dwelling over it, and so it was really only at the end of the season.

I did enjoy watching Andy [Murray] and Novak [Djokovic] and the race for world No. 1. I thought it was really exciting, and I checked in on some of the matches in the World Tour Finals. I saw the end of the finals. I saw the end of Murray against [Milos] Raonic [in the semifinals] as well, and I thought it was really exciting. And I think it was great for tennis that we had a finish like that this year.

I was following the tour more closely than I ever thought I would. I thought I would switch off and not be into it, but I was surprised how many times I caught myself checking live scores.

On what he is looking forward to in returning to the game:

Playing for big crowds against the best players in important matches is something I’m looking forward to. Also just the process, and I think seeing how I’m going to cope with the six-month layoff, basically.

I don’t want to say the year didn’t exist. It was maybe the most memorable year of my life. I feel like I’m going to remember every day of what I went through this year because it was kind of so difficult.

In a way, I’m really positive about how I’m feeling right now, and practice is going well, but then again expectations are low because I don’t have the matches yet, and it’s going to be best-of-five from the get-go at the Australian Open. I’m happy I’ve got the Hopman Cup, and I’ve got my three matches there to ease my way in.

I think the most exciting period for me is going to be the Australian Open. I don’t know what to expect from myself. The crowds won’t know what to expect, and my opponent has no clue what to expect. So I think that three-way thing is going to be quite exciting. How to handle that? And as I go along with it, how much can I play? Or how little can I play? But when I do play, I want to be at my best and for that I need to train hard, but also be very clever and smart. So we’ll see.

On his schedule in 2017:

For the moment, it looks like the Hopman Cup, Australian Open, Dubai, Indian Wells and Miami. For the moment, the clay-court season, I’ve got no clue. Grass, it would be Stuttgart, Halle, Wimbledon and that kind of stuff, but let’s see what happens in the first two to five events, and then I’ll have more answers. I wish I could tell you I’m going to play 52 tournaments in a row, but let’s not go crazy here.

On whether he will play the Laver Cup, the new Ryder Cup-style team event in September that was the brainchild of Federer and his agent, Tony Godsick:

For me, this is something I’m seriously looking forward to. I hope I can qualify on my own terms and not have to hope for captain’s pick from Bjorn [Borg] and call Bjorn up every day and be like, “Buddy, remember me? Don’t forget me.” Thank God I have a bit of time. I know how much Tony has worked, and I know also how much Rafa [Nadal] is looking forward to it, and how supportive he has been.

In a way, I can’t wait, but at the same time I know I’ve got my work cut out at the beginning of the year to make sure I can pace myself nicely through the season. But it’s definitely going to be a really big goal for me to have a successful Laver Cup for everybody involved.

On whether the break has been good for his back problems:

I would think so, but then again, uncertainty lies ahead to some extent, to see how the back will react with matches. It might be a big shock to the body. That’s why I’m pushing it as hard as I possibly can in practice, even though I’m starting to pace myself for the rest of the year because the hard work is done.

I think also my feet needed a rest. I always felt like I had burning on my feet and I felt like that’s disappeared a little bit, and I’ve already felt the benefits of that a little bit in Wimbledon. After the tough match I had with Marin Cilic, I actually felt quite fresh in the feet for the Milos Raonic match. I remember I had often a lot of foot pain, like in ’05 when I lost to Marat Safin at the Australian Open, I could barely walk after the match.

On the threat posed by the younger players like Raonic, Alexander Zverev, Dominic Thiem and Nick Kyrgios:

I think next year we’ll know again better who is going to be that next player, and I think it’s going to be an exciting year as well with the youngsters and with us coming back, Rafa and me, and Andy and Novak fighting for what they are fighting for. I think Raonic is on the doorstep. Can Stan [Wawrinka] win another Slam this next year? There are some great story lines. I’ve always been a big fan of young players coming up, and there seems to be some talent there now, which I like to see.

On Kyrgios, who was suspended late this season for lack of effort in a match in Shanghai:

What I know is he’s an exciting player to watch. He’s a great shotmaker, got a massive serve, and with those capabilities come great potential for great results. The question is, the mind, the body, how much is he willing to work at it? And he seems to check in and out of that sometimes, but ever since he came to Zurich to train with me sort of a month before he beat Rafa at Wimbledon, I’ve thought he was a great, great player. And he still is going to stay that for years to come.

The question is, how much does he want it? I think it’s all going to boil down to that, and that’s going to determine how much success he’s going to have.

On how important it is to him that the next generation stays classy on and off the court:

I think it would be good to have because our game sort of creates that, like golf. We have usually classy players, classy attitudes. But at the same time, I don’t believe everybody has to be exactly like that. I like different attitudes, different characters, different talk, different behavior.

Obviously, if you step outside the box, it’s like a kid, you tell them, “No, you’re not allowed to do that.” And that’s why you have rules, but you can stretch the rules. I’m cool with that. Nick I’m sure knows what the boundaries are more now because of what happened.

On Tom Brady still excelling in the N.F.L. at 39 or Jaromir Jagr still playing in the N.H.L. at 44 or Serena Williams still capable of dominating at 35:

I love seeing and hearing that these guys are still doing it. And Gianluigi Buffon with Juventus and the Italian national team. It just excites me when you tell me these names, because I’ve followed them for 20 years.

I’ve always wanted to be a great athlete or great player for a long time, and I was able to achieve that. But seeing that guys were doing it before me and are still doing it now, it’s good to know I’m not the only one. I think that’s great for me. Sure, it’s inspiration. It’s help. It’s motivation.

Profile photo of Tim Strawn Written by Tim Strawn

Owner, IART

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