Let's be clear about one thing: While Roger Federer would welcome a thoroughly unexpected return to the top of the Emirates ATP Rankings, he has no interest in grinding his way back to World No. 1.
At 35, No. 1 is not the priority. Physically and mentally, it can't be. Winning Grand Slams and ATP World Tour Masters 1000 titles, leading a balanced family life and staying healthy and motivated is what's most important to the Swiss, who holds the record for spending 302 weeks at the top spot.
Andre Agassi (33 years, 4 months) was the oldest man to reign as World No. 1. Federer, who was last No. 1 in October 2012, would be more than two years older than the American should he reclaim top spot later this year.
After sweeping the March Masters at the BNP Paribas Open and Miami Open presented by Itau, Federer said that he would likely shut it down this month and next before returning for Roland Garros (beginning 28 May). Currently 1,810 points clear of second-placed Rafael Nadal in the calendar-year Emirates ATP Race To London (a predictor of the year-end rankings), Federer’s sabbatical will see the Spaniard cut or possibly wipe out the Swiss’ lead in the Race during the clay swing.
ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert, a former World No. 4 and a winner of 20 titles, says, “Right now Fed’s got a better than 50 percent chance of finishing the year No. 1. When you look at how far Djoker and Murray are behind, I think it's going to come down to Roger and Rafa.
“Roger has finished the year No. 1 five times and in four of those five times he's left Miami first in the Race. He told me after the match that he's not 24 anymore and that possibly he'll only play the French. That's three Masters 1000s out of the way, but he can finish No. 1 if he wins one of the last three majors, which is certainly possible. He belongs on the Mt. Rushmore of the seven greatest athletes of all time, along with Michael Jordan and Tom Brady.”
Federer told Gilbert and ESPN viewers on court that he was “focussing on the French, the grass and then the hard courts is going to be the key for me. And if things happen for World No. 1 that would be great, but I still believe I’m a long way away.”
Later, in his press conference, Federer expanded on his goals for the rest of the season, saying, “Wimbledon has to be the biggest goal... but all of the grass really is important to me because I'll play Stuttgart and Halle there, too. Then of course I am looking very good for the [ATP] Finals, for the year-end championships, where I've been very successful. I like the indoors as well. So for me basically the second half of the season is a big priority now. That's why I'll take a break.”
Federer has opened a significant gap on the rest of the field in the Emirates ATP Race To London after winning the three biggest titles so far this year: The Australian Open and ATP World Tour Masters 1000s in Indian Wells and Miami. At the beginning of the season it looked like Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray would battle each other for No. 1, especially after they played an epic final in Doha in the first week of the season.
But unpredictability is one of the beauties of sport, and after a stunning first quarter of the season that no one saw coming, Murray (840 points) is 12th in the Race, 3,205 points adrift of Federer, and Djokovic (475) is 22nd, 3,570 points behind the Swiss. With Federer (4,045) first and Nadal (2,235) second, it feels more like 2007 than 2017.
Except for one thing: Gilbert believes Federer is playing better today than 10 years ago.
“I’ve been watching Roger since 1998 and in my humble opinion he is playing better tennis than at any point in his career,” Gilbert says. “He’s been forced to get better and he’s had to raise his backhand and return of serve. He’s playing more complete tennis. I look at the numbers and sometimes when something goes up, something goes down. But Roger’s breaking five per cent more while still holding 90 per cent of the time. And he’s converting 50 per cent of break points.”
Federer is determined that another key measure – his fitness – also remains in positive territory, hence his decision to embark on an extended break now. “I'm not 24 anymore. I have to pick my moments where I can peak and stay healthy,” Federer said in his presser.
“At the end of the day, I need to look out for my health, that I'm happy in all parts of my life, personal, private, on-court life, professional life, and I can't keep this pace up on every single day. Just too much and I'll run out. The desire will run out.
“I would rather take a step back and then really come back with a lot of energy and happiness. Then I can share that with everybody. Otherwise you'll see me here and you will see that all I want to do is get out of here. I don't want to be that guy. I really don't.”