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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 March 2019

Dubai Tennis 2019: Roger Federer dismisses retirement speculation

The 20-time major winner says there are no swansong plans behind his announcement of returning to clay competition this year for the first time since 2016

Roger Federer spoke to media on Sunday ahead of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships. Antonie Robertson / The National
Roger Federer spoke to media on Sunday ahead of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships. Antonie Robertson / The National

Fear not, Roger Federer fans, he’s not going anywhere just yet.

Last month, the 20-time grand slam champion announced that, for the first time in three years, he would contest the clay-court season this season.

Injury and scheduling had restricted his last appearance on the red dirt to the 2016 Rome Masters, but it later emerged his 2019 programme would include the Madrid Open, an event he has won three times, and a return to the French Open, where he lost in the quarters the last time he competed there, three years ago.

Cue, then, frenzied rumour online. With the Swiss sensation now 37 and having slipped to seventh in the world rankings, followers of the player and the sport speculated the Federer Farewell Tour was in motion.

However, asked in Dubai on Sunday if the retirement had anything to do with the calendar change, Federer shrugged and said simply that he was “in the mood to play clay again”.

“No, it’s not [because of retirement],” he continued. “I thought of it in isolation, ‘do I want to play the clay or not?’ And the answer was yes.

“This doesn’t mean this is my last clay-court season or whatever, or I had to play one more time before I retire. That was not the thinking. All I knew is that, after missing it two or three years, my body was ready, I was ready, my schedule with the family, my schedule with the team was ready to do it again.

“This is why I opted that it would be nice, instead of taking a big chunk off, I’d rather stay in the rhythm and actually enjoy myself on the clay. It’s going to be challenging, no doubt about it. I have to take baby steps in the beginning I guess to some extent, but that’s OK.”

So a busier Spring it is, when everyone was worried about Federer's Indian summer.

“I did grow up on clay, after all," he said. "I felt like my body is strong enough now again to do the surface changes from hard to clay to grass to hard again. In the past I felt different.

"Quite honestly, I was also happy to take two, three months away from the game, enjoy family, enjoy being away with my friends and everything, but training really hard that when I did come back, making Wimbledon sort of my top priority. It paid off the year before.

“That's not the reason why I'm putting the clay back on. It was purely based on I would just like to play. We can always readjust the schedule accordingly depending how I play the clay. The calendar is always flexible.”

Crisis averted. His current calendar constitutes this week’s bid at an eighth Dubai crown, and 100th ATP career singles title in all. A return to the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Stadium marks Federer’s first official match since last month’s Australian Open, when he lost in four sets to Stefanos Tsitsipas. The 20-year-old saved all 13 of his break points.

“I still felt like I played OK,” Federer said. “It wasn't like a horrible tournament for me. Played great at the Hopman Cup. I played good actually all matches; I just messed up on some big, big points. I'm not going to change my game because I missed out on some opportunities.

“I'm feeling good now. Fitness has been going well, tennis has been going well. I've been here a few days. I feel really well prepared. I'm excited that the ATP Tour is moving on and I'm here. I'm happy to be back.”

Federer’s form in Dubai breeds confidence of another success this week, he said, despite the courts playing slower. He opens on Monday against Philipp Kohlschreiber, with Federer enjoying a 13-0 head-to-head record.

The two have practiced together the past few days in Dubai, too, playing two keenly contested sets.

“I'm trying to think,” Federer said. “I think it was 7-6 for me in the first. I wonder if he was a break up in the second, something like that. It was close. I remember it was very close. We really both know what we're getting into. He looks good, so it's going to be tough.”

That could describe the draw, as well. Looming in Federer’s side are Fernando Verdasco, Milos Raonic, Karen Khachanov and Tomas Berdych, players with pedigree in Dubai, others having showcased their talent elsewhere.

So the road to his ATP ton is anything but straightforward. Federer captured his 99th individual title at his home tournament last October, but three tournaments have come and gone without him transitioning to triple figures.

Federer;s resolved to thinking, though, that when it happens it happens.

“That's got to be the mindset, that you try your best every match, every week anyway,” he said. “Things fall into place or they don't. It's not because of lack of effort.

“We've been talking about 99 titles ever since Basel, every tournament I've played. There's nothing new. Of course, coming to Dubai where I've enjoyed a lot of success sort of makes you believe maybe it could happen here. Then again, the draw is tough.

“I haven't played in a few weeks so you reset everything, get ready for your first round, hope everything is going to click again here in Dubai. It's going to be tough. Look, I hope we can have this conversation in a few days' time and see what happens.”

Updated: February 24, 2019 07:13 PM

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