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Wednesday, October 8, 2008
Rest now, play later, Roger

Some of you undoubtedly were disappointed when Roger Federer announced he would skip this week's tournament in Stockholm. In a carefully worded statement on his Web site, Federer told fans he needed a rest and that he might take more time off -- even the remainder of the year.

"I need to get a proper rest and get strong again so that I am 100 percent fit for the remainder of the year or next year," Federer said. "At this point, I am not sure when I will be ready to play again, but I hope to be back at some point before the end of the year."

This year or next year? "I hope to be back at some point before the end of the year?" Is Roger Federer effectively saying, "See you in Australia"?

Probably not, though we'll have a better idea of his plan next week, when the Madrid Masters rolls around. Federer is scheduled to play that event, along with a small tournament in his hometown of Basel, Switzerland, the Paris Masters and the year-end Masters Cup. Chances are slim he'll play all four. If you're a Federer fan, though, you should be pulling for him to play just one event -- the Masters Cup -- and at most two.

You should also be encouraged Federer is thinking about the long term (more majors, a run at the No. 1 ranking) rather than the short term. If Federer plays only the Masters Cup, he might finish third in the rankings, behind Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. To this I say, so what? The ranking means nothing at this point. Federer can't regain the top spot this year unless Nadal goes on a long losing streak. Next year, he'll have a lot of opportunities to pick up points, beginning in Australia and then in Indian Wells and Miami. It won't be easy for him to regain the top spot before Wimbledon no matter what he does, and playing this fall won't help his cause all that much.

What will help him, both next year and for years to come is a little preventative medicine. Federer has played tons of tennis in the last seven years. He's never completed fewer than 77 singles matches in a season since 2002, and he has played more than 80 in every one of those years except one. In 2003, he played 95 matches. In 2006, he played 97 (and won 92 of them). So far this year, thanks to the Olympics, he has played 67 matches. If he's up to his usual standard and plays the four remaining events on his schedule, he'll easily break the 80-match barrier -- and then travel to a few exhibitions in Asia after the Masters Cup, as he did last year.

Eighty matches in a year during which he was stricken by mono? It's too much tennis, and it's good news Federer recognizes that fact. Injuries in tennis, like all other sports, don't just arise from one traumatic event (a rolled ankle or accidental slip). They develop over time because of repeated stress. Look at baseball pitchers -- let's say Josh Beckett of the Boston Red Sox: He pitched more than 200 innings last year and had his best stuff late into October, when the Sox won their second World Series in four years. This year, Beckett has struggled most of the season. Last week, he labored through his first playoff start. When innings -- or tennis matches -- pile up, athletes break down, perhaps slowly, but surely.

Federer is still young (he's 27) but that's about the age when the skills of a top tennis player begin to deteriorate. In the prime of his career, Pete Sampras used to play 80, 90, even 100 matches in a season -- every year. In the last four years of his career, though, from age 27 to 31, he never played more than 55. Federer should shoot for a similar number in the years to come.

Tennis doesn't have much of an offseason, but if Federer doesn't play until the Masters Cup this year, he will create his own offseason. He can then treat the Masters Cup as a tune-up (because of its round-robin format, he'll be guaranteed at least three matches against quality competition). He would follow it up with a little fun, and a few handsome paychecks, at the Asian exhibitions and then begin to train hard, probably while everyone else rests their weary legs. Better for Federer to rest now and begin training for Australia earlier than usual. If he does, you have to like his chances of tying Sampras' record of 14 major titles in Melbourne. For Federer, there's no goal more important than that one.