There is something Zen about Roger Federer.
But then you knew that already.
Reams of newsprint, and whatever the digital equivalents are, have been written about his mental transformation from being a racquet-smasher to the calm, haloed champion that the Swiss is today.
And yet, every time he faces the media, or interacts with kids, like he did on Saturday during a virtual Q&A, there is serenity in his demeanour, wisdom in his words, and impact in his thoughts. Much like his treat-to-the-eyes single-handed backhand.
His take on the Grand Slam slug fest between Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and him? “Maybe this is bigger for them than for me at this very moment. Maybe, I am the measuring stick for them, like Pete (Sampras) was for me.”
Can the year off extend his career? “I do believe, what you miss through injuries, you can add it to the back end of your career.” Or “(I) can play very little but then play very well. But then that's also maybe why my longevity has been good”.
Did retirement cross his thoughts during his time off? “The urge was there to come back and go out on my own terms. Retirement was never on the cards”
His motivation to get back into the game? “I just feel the story is not over yet.”
Which brings him to the Qatari capital for the Qatar ExxonMobil Open, a tournament he has won thrice (2005, 2006, 2011), and last played in 2012. Chances are the 20-time Grand Slam is also keen to brush aside his last memory of this ATP 250 from that time, having withdrawn from the semis due to injury.
“I am really looking forward to it (playing in Doha). It's just about 'let's see how matches go, let's see how training goes with all the top guys and professional players, not just sparring partners'… It's just about building up to being stronger, better, fitter, faster,” the 39-year-old told a virtual press conference, a phenomenon forced by the Covid-19 pandemic.
“I had enough time watching matches with no fans, how it must feel as players, and I try to put myself in their shoes. Early rounds it doesn't make a huge difference, because when we practice usually, it's either light crowd or no crowd. But when it comes to the crunch, maybe quarters, semis and finals, and you are playing top 10 guys, and playing for the title, you are playing for so much, but in front of nobody.
“I am hearing that maybe we will have 2000 people here in Center Court in Doha, so at least it will feel like almost normal, because 2000 fans can make a lot of noise. Anything other than zero is good.”
Like he said later in the press conference, “Dominic (Thiem) winning his first Grand Slam title (2020 US Open), and it was heartbreak for me that it was in front of no fans.”
Seeded second in Doha behind Thiem, Federer has a bye in the first round, and will face the winner of the match between Frenchman Jeremy Chardy and Briton Daniel Evans. But he doesn’t want to see far too much in the future, even as he hopes to “surprise myself”.
“In a vision, I see myself with a trophy. Honestly, if I can complete several matches, however this tournament plays out, I will be happy leaving the court knowing that I played a tournament again. So expectations are really low, but I hope I can surprise myself and maybe others,” said Federer, who last played competitively in a straight-sets semifinal loss to Novak Djokovic in the 2020 Australian Open.
“If I am concerned about anything, it is about the knee, having had a double knee surgery.
“I know it's on the rare side for a 40-year-old to come back after a year being out. But I wanted to take my time, no rush. The important thing is I'm injury free, pain free and I can enjoy myself on the tour out there. We will see how it goes now, I am curious myself to find out.”
With 1,513 matches in pro career that began in 1998, he is second only to Jimmy Connors’ 1,557, and Federer said he cherishes his breaks, and was hoping to really get into the groove for the season on grass.
"I hope by Wimbledon I'm going to be 100% and that's when the season starts for me. Everything until then it's just 'Let's see how it goes',” the World No. 5 said.
"I might surprise myself but then actually I've already done in practice the last few weeks, I was surprised at actually how well it did go. But like we know, matches are a different animal.”
For now, though, “I feel I can go all out in my first match. So far everything is positive, green lights all around.”