It was perhaps always inevitable, or at least predictable, but Roger Federer deciding to withdraw from Roland Garros should not be without criticism.
Saturday night saw a jaded-looking Federer battle through brilliantly to beat Dominik Koepfer to reach the second week of the French Open – his first Grand Slam since January 2020.
It was something that Andy Murray described as ‘inspiring,’ and from a viewer’s point of view it was incredibly absorbing.
On Sunday afternoon, however, he was out of the tournament regardless after deciding to withdraw to protect his fitness for the grass season.
The first thing to say is that Federer has every right to manage his schedule and do what is right for his recovery. He has been a master of it throughout his career and now, at the age of 39-years-old and coming back from knee surgery, it is more important than ever.
However, the way that he has done it is, quite simply, disrespectful to everyone else involved.
It is impossible to know whether this was the plan all along. We know that he always looked at Roland Garros as a chance to get some tennis under his belt and little more.
Indeed, he made it very clear before the tournament that he did not see himself realistically going especially deep.
“Roland Garros is not the goal,” Federer said after losing in Geneva last month. “The goal is the grass.”
“I’ve said it several times that to me, really, the season starts on the grass.”
Perhaps, then, he was always looking at maybe playing three best-of-five matches and then bowing out one way or another. Certainly, the speed with which he has withdrawn following the win over Dominik Koepfer suggests it was.
He had a whole day on Sunday to assess his fitness, see how his body was reacting, and make a decision about whether or not to play Matteo Berrettini the following day. He had that time. The fact he didn’t use it suggests he never planned to.
The first person to feel for, then, is Koepfer himself. Yes, of course there is an argument to be made that he should have only been given a place in the fourth round on merit, so if he couldn’t beat Federer he didn’t deserve it anyway.
However, Federer’s withdrawal after the match as opposed to during has ultimately cost Koepfer €57,000 in prize money, not to mention the missed opportunity. After the year that players have endured with reduced prize money pots and cancelled tournaments, it seems almost borderline cruel.
Then of course, there is the fans to consider. By withdrawing after his third-round match rather than during, Federer has denied the fans a match to watch in round four.
The individual it may be most unfair on, though, is Novak Djokovic. Let’s assume that the world number one gets through his fourth-round match with Lorenzo Musetti.
That would set up a quarter-final clash with Berrettini, who will now be fully rested after three days rest compared to Djokovic’s one. That already looked like it would be a potential marathon, and so that extra rest could be definitive.
Even if you subscribe to the belief that Federer was making Koepfer beat him on merit to protect the integrity of the competition and make him earn it, he has immediately abandoned that position by refusing to even try to make Berrettini beat him and hand him an advantage in the quarterfinals.
But also, and perhaps most importantly of all, Federer has now shown disrespect for the tournament itself.
The French Open may not be his favourite Grand Slam, but it still is a Grand Slam. It deserves to be a destination event on the tennis calendar. It has earned that. It doesn’t deserve to be reduced to a warm-up event.
Yes, Federer is coming back from injury, but let’s not forget he was playing as far back as March. There were other opportunities to work on his tournament fitness before the French Open. He just decided not to take them.
Let’s be clear here. Roger Federer has made a very smart decision. He knows his body, he knows his goals, and he knows how to give him the best chance of managing one to deliver the other.
But he has also made an incredibly selfish decision and one that has not shown any real respect to anyone else for whom there are consequences, and simply being Roger Federer should not make him immune to criticism for it.
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