It’s exactly one year ago that Roger Federer played his last competitive tennis match.
It isn’t one that he will remember too fondly as he was beaten in straight sets in the semi-finals of the Australian Open by Novak Djokovic.
And, now 39, having undergone two knee operations in the last year, will the 20-time Grand Slam champion win again when he does return to the tour? And how will he win?
Despite his brilliance, age is clearly a factor at this stage of his career. At last’s year Australian Open he was twice pushed to five sets before facing Djokovic and that took its toll. He said after the defeat that going into the match he felt he had a “three per cent chance to win”.
Whether his knee was bothering him or not, Federer was already trying to keep matches as short as possible at the start of the tournament. In his first two rounds combined 70 per cent of his points were played where he hit just a maximum of two shots in the rally and he only played 22 long rallies of nine or more shots.
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His serve was also important in helping him dictate rallies and finish them quickly, with his 72 per cent first-serve average in the first two rounds well above the tournament average.
But those two wins were against players ranked outside the top 40 in the world – can he do it against higher-ranked players and can he sustain quick-fire tennis for an entire tournament?
He has shown innovative thinking in the past, especially with the “SABR” (Sneak Attack By Roger) in 2015, when he would step up high into the court on an opponent’s second serve in a bid to take control of the point quickly. Federer suggested in an interview with former coach Stefan Edberg last year that the SABR might make a comeback. “I'm already thinking about how I can bring it back in the coming year.”
But Eurosport pundit Annabel Croft thinks “we might see something different” from Federer when he does return to the tour.
“He has had time to consider his strategy for 2021 and has always been very smart with his training and scheduling, so it would not surprise me if he has been focusing his practice on playing really short, sharp, attacking points,” former British No 1 Croft told tennishead.
“By nature Federer is an aggressive player who looks to win matches quickly, but he might have decided that at this stage of his career it is time to shorten points even more by attacking at every conceivable opportunity, playing chip-and-charge on his returns and getting into the net whenever he can.
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“If he is to challenge for the biggest prizes, he surely needs to avoid being drawn into lengthy wars of attrition.”
Even when fully fit, Federer has largely not fared well in longer matches against his rivals in recent years. In 2019 he lost in five sets to Djokovic in the Wimbledon final and also to Grigor Dimitrov in the US Open quarter-finals. More than ever there’s a sense that he cannot afford to expend too much energy in the early rounds if he wants to win tournaments, especially Grand Slams.
Former world No 1 Jim Courier believes Federer may look to speed things up even more, especially if he is not able to move as well as he once did.
“Roger Federer's wizardry with a racquet will be intact. He will not have lost his racquet skills, but the big x-factor is the movement. He had two knee surgeries, and the return couldn't come as fast as Roger and his team had hoped," said Courier on the Tennis Channel.
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“Roger has played first-strike tennis for his entire career, and he could even increase if the movement is not there. Still, it will be tough for him to endure seven best-of-five encounters without a proper movement, which is what he is here for.
“We should be grateful for seeing him on the court again; he is so fun to watch, and we all hope to see him playing as long as possible.”
This could be a big year for Federer as he looks to win Olympic gold for the first time in Tokyo and also aims to move ahead in the all-time Grand Slam standings after Rafael Nadal pulled level on 20.
It has been reported that he will make his much-anticipated return at the Qatar Open in Doha which starts on March 8. But will he have any new tricks in his locker as he looks to add a few more trophies to his collection?
The 2021 Australian Open is live and exclusive on Eurosport. You can watch every moment on eurosport.co.uk and the Eurosport app.