Roger Federer followed the world No1, Novak Djokovic, out of the Monte Carlo Masters on Friday, beaten yet surprisingly upbeat, then revealed he may not play again until the French Open in five weeks’ time, arousing concerns that his injured knee is worse than he is letting on.
The 34-year-old Swiss clearly is taking every precaution and rest available in the gloaming of a wonderful career. Returning to the Tour after pulling out of Miami last month with a virus, he looked in good shape here in the first tournament of the European clay season, but in the third quarter-final of the day he was unable to repel a rousing finish by Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who won 3-6, 6-2, 7-5.
“I definitely won’t play the next couple of weeks,” Federer said. “And Madrid [which follows Barcelona]? I’ll decide probably 10 days from now. Rome? I’ll decide probably in 15 days from now.”
For the first time in his career, Federer had surgery to repair a freak knee twist while running a bath for one of his children at the end of the Australian Open in Melbourne in early February. He is not keen to repeat the experience, fearing it would signal the final stages of his career.
“I guess it depends what the diagnosis is of the doctor. I think it’s always the beginning of the end, surgery. I still believe that. If I can avoid it, I will always avoid it. Would I have surgery for fun? Not me anyway. I don’t see one funny bit about it.”
Andy Murray, who has endured his own trauma on the operating table, is back at the top of his game – and that verdict comes from his opponent in the first semi-final on Saturday, Rafael Nadal, who needed only an hour and 17 minutes to crush an out-of-sorts Stan Wawrinka 6-1, 6-4 in the second quarter-final.
After stuttering wins over the French players Pierre-Hugues Herbert – a skilled doubles artist – and the inventive but fragile Benoît Paire, Murray beat the world No12, Milos Raonic, 6-2, 6-0 in 66 minutes on Friday.
Never mind that the Canadian looked to be struggling for balance and speed across the dirt, a legacy of a leg strain sustained when hunting down a drop shot the previous day; Murray hit the ball cleanly, judiciously and with renewed confidence.
It was little more than a training hit as Raonic lumbered and sweated to little effect. One of an estimated 15 present and former players who call Monte Carlo home, the Canadian looked anything but at ease as Murray manoeuvred him about the clay at will. “He played a great match today,” Nadal said, adding that Murray’s ambitions of winning the French Open were perfectly reasonable.
“If you are able to play semi-finals of Roland Garros or semi-finals of Rome a couple of times, you are ready to win titles. He’s a great player in all aspects. He’s a great clay-court player, great hard-court, grass, indoor player. He’s a complete player in all aspects. If he plays well, he can play well on every surface.”
Murray responded with a smile to Nadal’s kind assessment. “I learned a lot last year during the clay-court season,” he said, looking back on his breakthrough win over Nadal in the Madrid final. “Rather than not looking forward to this period of the year that much, like when I was younger, I have started to embrace it and try to learn, watching videos, doing a lot of specific drills and training blocks to try to improve the things I was struggling with.”
He added: “I’m not going to say I’m going to win this event. I didn’t play well the first couple of matches, and people are saying: ‘Oh, disaster, he’s playing really bad.’ But I got through – and now I have an opportunity to play against the best clay-courter ever. I’m feeling good.”
It has been a fascinating and at times perplexing year for the Scot. The arrival of his daughter Sophia preceded more heroics in the Davis Cup, yet he went out early in Indian Wells and Miami, looking simultaneously tired and undercooked.
Here, he has slowly found a rhythm on the clay. While he would dearly love to take the title after reaching two semi-finals, this has always been the first stage of his preparation for an assault on Paris (as it is for all the contenders), where he is convinced he can win.
Nadal, once a peerless master on this surface, has struggled for a worryingly long time against players who years ago he would have dismissed in his familiar, muscular fashion. He won the title here eight years in a row, before running into a rampant Djokovic in 2012. Those memories will help him. On Friday, he was ruthless again.
Wawrinka, one of the best racket-smashers in the game, splattered his cudgel across his substantial thigh at the end of the fifth game in the first set, apparently angered by his own indifferent form, some personal mood swings and noise drifting on to Court Rainier III from one of the many nearby restaurant tents.
As the sun lowered, Gaël Monfils took the fourth semi-final place, beating the lucky loser Marcel Granollers 6-2, 6-4. The Frenchman could yet win this – and that tip came from Murray, after Djokovic made his surprise exit earlier in the week.
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