Almost four years after his last match in the Caja Mágica, Roger Federer is back at the Mutua Madrid Open and, by extension, back on clay. The Swiss arrived in the Spanish capital on Friday morning ready to face other greats of the game on the red dust. He was quick to get to work with a training session this afternoon in the Manolo Santana Stadium.
Federer has not competed in Madrid since 6 May 2015, when Nick Kyrgios caused one of the biggest upsets of that year’s tournament by knocking out the Swiss legend in the first round (7-6, 6-7, 6-7). It was the last of his 11 appearances in this competition; five on hard court and six on clay. 2019 will see the return of the three-time Mutua Madrid Open champion (2006, 2009 and 2012) to a surface that hasn’t enjoyed his presence since Rome 2016.
It seems logical that the current world number 4 would choose Madrid for his return to clay; in terms of win percentages, this is his third best tournament (81%). In addition, he has always enjoyed the warmth of the fans, who have unconditionally supported him as if he were a Spanish player. This shouldn’t surprise anyone as we are talking about the second most successful player in the history of the tournament. Ahead of him lies his great nemesis Rafa Nadal (five Mutua Madrid Open titles) and only Novak Djokovic (two crowns) can level Federer this year if he lifts the Ion Tiriac Trophy to the sky on 12 May.
However, the player from Basel has one Madrid record that nobody can match: he’s the only player to have won this tournament on hard court (2006, still at Casa de Campo), clay (2009, first champion in the Caja Mágica) and blue clay (2012, the only time to date that this type of clay has been used). Fernando González (7-5, 6-1, 6-0), Nadal (6-4, 6-4) and Tomas Berdych (3-6, 7-5, 7-5) were the opponents Federer took down to claim his titles in Madrid. He also reached, but failed to win, the finals in 2007 (6-1, 3-6, 3-6 against David Nalbandian) and 2010 (4-6, 6-7 against Nadal). Other notable results for the ex-world number 1 at the Mutua Madrid Open were his semi-final appearances in 2003 (4-6, 6-4, 4-6 against Juan Carlos Ferrero), 2008 (6-3, 3-6, 5-7 against Andy Murray) and 2011 (bowed out to Nadal 7-5, 1-6, 3-6). Not forgetting the quarter-finals he reached in 2002, as a debutant of just 21 years of age (Fabrice Santoro saw him off 5-7, 3-6).
Federer has reached the latter rounds in Madrid almost every time he has set foot in the Spanish capital. However, he was unable to maintain that consistency in his recent visits to our country. In 2013 he played just two matches (he beat Radek Stepanek in the second round, but Kei Nishikori knocked him out in the last sixteen 4-6, 6-1, 2-6). In 2015, he played the aforementioned match against Kyrgios, when he said goodbye to the Caja Mágica no sooner had his tournament got underway.
Having Federer, Nadal and Djokovic in the same draw is starting to be an exception rather than the rule and so this latest gathering of the Big 3 is one of the most attractive aspects of this edition of the Mutua Madrid Open. The Swiss is well prepared; two titles in 2019 (Dubai and Miami; along with Dominic Thiem, he has more than anyone else on the men’s tour) and a record of 18-2 (only Thiem and Stefanos Tsitsipas have beaten him this season). There is plenty of reason for optimism then as one of his favourite tournaments is here and, as is more than evident, Federer still has plenty of tennis to offer.