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It used to be that Roger Federer thrived in the thin atmosphere up at the peak of the game, but the beleaguered former No. 1 -- and candidate for Greatest of All Time accolades -- now has a lot of trouble breathing up near the top. So he's gone back to his native Switzerland to work on his lungs and game prior to the Madrid Masters 1000.
"I'd like to go back to Switzerland. I've been on the road again for a few weeks here," Federer said after he lost his semifinal match with Novak Djokovic in Rome late last week. "I'd like to go to Switzerland and make sure I get early enough to Madrid and get used to the altitude. Just make sure I'm in good shape over there [in Spain]."
It's funny, but you don't hear guys who are winning big tournaments talk that way, especially when those tournaments are right in their proverbial backyards. If the clay-court season suddenly seems like such a grind for a European player, I'd hate to think what he'll be feeling during the U.S. summer hard-court season.
There's another possible explanation for Federer's homesickness -- the last tournament he won was the Swiss Indoors, in his hometown of Basel. That was about seven months ago. If you had predicted at the time that Roger would head into May of 2009 without having won another title, you would have been skewered on a thousand fondue spears.
It has been rough sledding for Federer lately, but he's also facing a significant opportunity. The next major event is the Madrid Masters Series 1000, the newest of the game's showcase "dual" events featuring men's and women's fields and a draw of 96, just like the established hard-court dual events, Miami and Indian Wells.
Madrid is a brand-new event, so it's hard to say what role it will play in the annual calendar. It's still not certain whether Rafael Nadal will play Madrid -- he's been very coy about the issue, mainly because he has some concerns about the high altitude, and how the changes it demands will affect a player for the next and most important tournament of the spring, Roland Garros.
So here's an ideal scenario for Federer: He trains in Switzerland -- at a high altitude -- and, with the previous week off, enters Madrid with fresh legs and a clear mind. Meanwhile, Nadal caves in to the guilt and pressure and decides not to pull out of Madrid.
Taking advantage of the thin air in Spain, Federer rediscovers the form that has abandoned him. Nadal, grumpy and having second thoughts about capitulating, struggles. But he makes it through to the final, where Federer is waiting. Federer, finding the thin air conducive to aggressive play, upsets Nadal.
Thus, Federer goes into the French Open with replenished confidence and hope, while Nadal -- the four-time defending champ -- begins to feel the pressure of shooting for a historic fifth straight title.
That's the dream scenario for all those Federer fans who are living on bottled oxygen.