Roger Federer himself put it quite simply recently: “How can I think of winning the French Open?”
After all, the 20-time major champion will be entered in his first Grand Slam tournament in more than 15 months when play begins on the red clay of Roland Garros in the leafy southwestern outskirts of Paris on Sunday.
Consider this summary of his circumstances: Federer has accumulated more operations on his right knee (two) than victories (one, in three matches) since February 2020.
“The moment you know you’re not going to win the French Open, it can’t be your goal. At least at my level. So I’m just realistic and I know I will not win the French — and whoever thought I would, or could, win it is wrong,” Federer said.
“Of course, crazier things might have happened. But I’m not so sure in the last 50 years at the French Open, somebody just walked up at 40 years old, being out for a year and a half, and just (went) on to win everything. ... I know my limitations at the moment.”
For the record, he hasn't quite hit the “Big 4-0” just yet. Still, this will be the last French Open of his 30s — and the last one for Serena Williams in her 30s, too.
He turns 40 in August; she reaches that milestone in September.
The chances for fans to watch them compete, and for other players to try to measure up, are getting rarer (Williams has appeared in just three matches, going 1-2, since a semifinal loss to Naomi Osaka at the Australian Open).
While Federer made clear he sees this trip to France mainly as a way to help him get ready for Wimbledon, Williams acknowledged her lack of play on clay makes things less comfortable as she resumes her bid for a 24th major championship.
“This year has been a little more difficult than normal,” said Williams, who pulled out of last year's French Open before the second round because of an injured left Achilles.
Asked how much she considered skipping the red stuff entirely this season, Williams quickly replied: "Not one second."
Both Williams and Federer carry expectations of excellence every time they step on a court.
Some comes internally, of course, which is why Williams holds the professional era record of 23 Slam singles titles and Federer shares the men's mark of 20 with Rafael Nadal.
And some comes externally.
That all can be daunting when there is more than the usual amount of uncertainty about the status of one's game.
“You need to, sometimes, just put yourself out there. Sometimes it’s not fun when you know where your limitations are and, obviously for me, it’s always difficult, because people expect a lot from me and I have high expectations for myself," Federer said.
“So when ... I feel like, ‘My God, I can play so much better,’ it feels strange and it’s disappointing. But at the same time, this is the process I need to go through and that’s why I can’t get too down on myself.”
NOT QUITE ON TIME
The start of last year's tournament moved from May to September because of the coronavirus pandemic. This year's shift, for the same reason, is far less dramatic: Play was delayed one week.
“What does it change if we do it a week later? We’re talking about COVID here. I’m not sure it will change anything,” said Daniil Medvedev, a two-time Grand Slam finalist.
One effect, though, is there will be only two weeks, instead of three, between the end of the French Open and start of Wimbledon.
DJOKOVIC & NADAL
Nadal and Novak Djokovic met in the 2020 French Open final and it probably should not stun anyone if either is playing on the tournament's last Sunday again.
Nadal extended his own record by winning La Coupe des Mousquetaires for the 13th time last year, which also allowed him to equal Federer with 20 Slam titles. Nadal is favored to raise those totals to 14 and 21, according to FanDuel Sportsbook.
Djokovic, meanwhile, is ranked No. 1 — he's spent more weeks there than any man in history — and keeps gaining on the other Big Three members' major totals: His Australian Open championship in February was his 18th at a Slam.
TWO ‘DEFENDING’ WOMEN'S CHAMPS
Two women can stake a claim to defending the title: Iga Swiatek, who won the French Open in 2020 at age 19 without dropping a set, and Ash Barty, who won it in 2019 to hasten her rise to the No. 1 ranking she still holds but stayed away last year because of the pandemic.
“It's a fresh start,” Barty said. “A fresh start for everyone in that event.”
DAY FOR NIGHT
Night sessions are a popular feature of the U.S. Open and Australian Open and now join the schedule at Roland Garros, where Court Philippe Chatrier has been outfitted with a roof and artificial lights.
Eligibility for the Tokyo Olympics, scheduled to start in July, is based in part on the WTA and ATP rankings released the day after the French Open ends. No more than four tennis players of each gender from any country can participate in singles at the Summer Games, and some — such as 17-year-old American Coco Gauff — are in a tight race.
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