Commentary

Is less more for Roger Federer?

Originally Published: June 8, 2011
By Kamakshi Tandon | Special to ESPN.com

Roger FedererAlex Livesey/Getty ImagesDid Roger Federer stretch himself too thin by playing too many tuneups before the French Open?

It was the third set of his French Open final against Rafael Nadal, and Roger Federer was looking pretty good. He was likely thinking that Nadal was showing signs of tiring, while he still had some energy to burn.

Not bad for a 29-year-old playing a guy who just turned 25. True, the Spaniard had been doing more running in the match, but Federer had been through a long and arduous four-setter with Novak Djokovic a couple of days before.

Of course, we all know what happened in the fourth set -- Nadal clawed back from a 0-40 deficit in the first game to win six of the next seven games, romping home to his sixth French Open title.

Still, that third-set feeling was not something Federer expected coming into the tournament. In the three months leading up to the French Open, he played 24 matches in six tournaments, taking part in the Dubai tournament and the nonmandatory Monte Carlo Masters in addition to Masters events at Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid and Rome. Last year, he played 14 matches in five events in this period.

"I was really tired after Rome," Federer told reporters in French after the final in Paris on Sunday. "Sometimes after Miami I'd take ten days off in the past, but this year I didn't.

"I've trained and practiced a lot after Monte Carlo. I decided to play Monte Carlo because I was fit. I played a lot from Dubai until Rome. I didn't take a longer break."

He arrived in Paris feeling the effects. "I hoped I could practice more here, but I was so tired that I said, 'OK, I'll practice just what is enough,'" he said. "I could never hear the alarm clock in the morning ringing, I was so tired.

"At the beginning of the tournament, I didn't think I could manage this way, but after two matches, I thought, OK, I feel better. I'm in the tournament."

The rest was (almost) history; a reminder of what the 16-time Grand Slam champion can still produce. And for Federer and his camp, perhaps an encouraging sign that doing "just what is enough" remains enough.

"Overall, I thought it [the final] was a very high level match," said Federer's co-coach, Paul Annacone, in an interview with ESPN.com. "Rafa, you have to give him credit. He did what he always does on clay. Makes you hit one extra ball, and puts the ball [in] parts of the court where it's very difficult to attack."

The win over Djokovic in the semifinals was even more satisfying. "Everyone's talking about how that's one of the highest level matches they've ever seen," Annacone added. "So, I feel good about it. And I think that proves he's still there, and he's worked really hard to stay there and maintain that level, so I don't think there's any reason why he can't keep repeating that."

The well-respected coach, who also saw Pete Sampras through the late stages of his career, challenges the assumption that Federer's age spells physical decline. "I think a lot of that is a fallacy, too," he said."The strength and conditioning people, if you talk to [them] -- at 29 years old, he can still do it. There's no question."

But, he added, "I think it's harder to do it for 40 weeks, over 11 months.

"The idea is to structure your schedule so you're playing your best tennis here, and in Wimbledon, New York, and you know, if you do that, things will go just right. So, it's a matter of trying to manage all that stuff, which he does really well."

Grand Slams also pose different challenges from regular tournaments because the matches are longer -- best-of-five sets rather than best-of-three -- but players get days off between matches because the event lasts two weeks instead of one. Recovery, not endurance, is often the biggest issue for players as they get older.

"It's better for the body to recover, but it's three out of five sets. So, it's a longer workload over a longer period of time," Annacone said of the Slams. "But it's always nice to have a day off."

Even with the day off and his comments about feeling physically good in the final, Federer felt his French Open campaign took enough of a toll for him to pull out of his regular grass-court event in Halle, Germany, this week. "My body and especially my groin need a rest after the French Open," he said in a statement. "After talking with my team this morning, I feel that it is too big a risk to take a chance and aggravate it before Wimbledon."

In an interview with Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper last month, Federer also indicated that he might pare down his schedule next season. After saying he opts to play nearly all the Masters events instead of more smaller events because "it's good for tennis," he added, "But I wonder if I'll be back at Indian Wells next year or go directly to Miami."

Federer, whose twin daughters are now almost 2, later continued, "I see myself mentally capable of playing for many years. … For me, it's just important to keep a balance between training, matches, holidays, family life."

With the ascendancy of Nadal and now Djokovic, Federer's mindset is also changing. For perhaps the first time since he became a top-flight player, Federer went into his semifinal against Djokovic saying he didn't have much to lose. "Sure, I'd love to be again in the Grand Slam final because I haven't achieved that in a few slams," he said. "But nothing major for me as long as I keep on giving myself chances."

This more selective and opportunistic approach means the tennis world might be seeing less of the Swiss maestro in the seasons to come. But, as at the French Open, less could turn out to be more.

Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.