Why pandemic robbed Roger of more than rivals

When Roger Federer walks out onto Court Philippe-Chatrier tonight to open his Roland-Garros campaign, there’ll be something missing.

Instead of the usual capacity crowd to watch one of the all-time legends, just 1000 fans will be on hand when Federer plays Uzbek qualifier Denis Istomin.

It will be unfamiliar surroundings for the Swiss maestro, who is playing his first grand slam match since the COVID-19 pandemic began more than a year ago, having missed much of 2020, as well as this year’s Australian Open, following knee surgery.

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Federer, with 20 major titles to his name, is of course no stranger to the game’s biggest stages.

But just how he handles the pursuit of grand slam glory in front of a handful of spectators will make for fascinating viewing.

“I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to speak to Roger in an open forum a couple of weeks ago,” tennis legend Todd Woodbridge told Wide World of Sports.

“One of the things that really stood out was his openness about how difficult it’s going to be for him, playing without normal crowds. He realises that he’s been very effective in utilising the crowds to help him in tough moments in matches, and also the aura the crowd helps build from the moment Roger walks out onto court.

“It will be interesting to see how he handles not having the crowd to use to his advantage. It’s something he’s aware of and I think it’s something he’s not looking forward to.”

Federer of course, normally draws a crowd whenever he steps on court. Woodbridge noted that 8000 fans watched Federer practise at the Hopman Cup in 2016, while a Laver Cup practice session attracted 12,000 fans.

Federer turns 40 in August, a reminder that Father Time waits for no-one, and Woodbridge said the current restrictions on fans may be the catalyst for Federer to call it quits.

“The question, which is not for me to answer, but it will be for him: Is this how he wants to continue playing?” Woodbridge said.

“With limited crowds, does that still give him the enjoyment and the motivation to keep doing the hard work?

“There’s the euphoria you get with the lift of a crowd, but also the kick you get from winning, and both of those, for Roger, are entwined.”

The flipside to that argument, of course, is Federer’s possible reluctance to bow out in front of an audience more commonly seen at a low-level ATP Tour event.

The ideal scenario would have Federer lifting the Wimbledon trophy for a record-extending ninth time, in front of an adoring, capacity crowd on centre court at SW19.

Potentially finishing his career in front of a few thousand socially-distanced fans in the early rounds is hardly the ideal scenario for one of the greatest players to have graced the game. Wimbledon, which starts in four weeks, is currently planning for crowds at 25 percent of capacity.

“That’s the question he’ll have to ask himself. One would think that that certainly would not be the way he wants to leave the game,” Woodbridge said.

“The last thing he’d want, I imagine, is to have lost a tight match at Wimbledon with a couple of thousand people watching, and for that to be the farewell.

“Sometimes we can’t control every part of our destiny, but he’s been quite good at that over the years.”

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