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Couch: Roger Federer Bails On French, Shows He’s No GOAT

Tiger Woods once won the U.S. Open on a broken leg. Michael Jordan broke open an NBA Finals by scoring 38 points in his famous “Flu Game,’’ when he was so weak that teammate Scottie Pippen had to hold him up.

On Sunday, Roger Federer, saying he isn’t hurt or sick but that “it’s important that I listen to my body,’’ withdrew from the French Open a day before his match in the final 16.

Let me put this bluntly: The greatest of all time does not turn and run in the second week of a major championship without serious reason. The plain truth is that Federer is fleeing France because he doesn’t think he can beat Novak Djokovic or Rafael Nadal. To reach the final, Federer would probably have had to beat both of them after one more win.

This is a big mistake, a terrible look and a costly move for Federer’s legacy. How can Federer claim to be tennis’ GOAT (I already think that’s Nadal, anyway) when he’s deep into a major and so sure he can’t beat his greatest rivals from his own time that he just walks away?

If Nadal wins, history will show that he surpassed Federer in all-time major championship titles in the same tournament that Federer fled.

But Federer said that after two knee surgeries and over a year of rehab, it’s important that “I don’t push myself too quickly on my road to recovery.’’ Maybe so, but he’ll push himself as far and fast as possible at Wimbledon, which is only three weeks down that road.

Why? Because he thinks he can win there on the grass surface, where he has had his greatest, most recent success. The grass is speedy and less grueling and grinding on the body than the slow, red clay and long, brutal rallies in France. Federer thinks he has a chance there.

Since when does the GOAT get to pick the time and place?

No, this looks as if Federer is just afraid of Nadal and Djokovic in Paris. If he thought he could beat those guys, it’s a good bet he’d have stayed and played them. He’s trying to find a way to win another major, afterall.

But it’s hard to imagine, say, Michael Jordan, ever thinking he couldn’t have beaten someone, much less walking away from the challenge.

I know that Federer is 39 and returning from a long layoff. And even before the French, he said it wasn’t realistic to think he could win, and that he was, instead, using it to get match-tough again before Wimbledon.

So Wimbledon was his focus, his aim.

But he had looked so good in the first week of the French. Today, he would have played Matteo Berrettini, a basher who Federer has beaten twice without losing a set. That would have put him in the quarterfinals against, most likely, Djokovic.

There’s no guarantee, either, that Federer will reach the quarters at Wimbledon. He might well be throwing away his last great chance to win another major. And maybe he’s listening to his body, which is telling him, “You’re going to lose. You’re going to wear down. You can’t beat Nadal.’’ 

But maybe Federer’s head and nervous system are doing some talking, too. 

Beating Nadal at the French Open is the toughest thing to do in any individual sport. That’s partly why Federer skipped out on a few French Opens along the way. Still, Federer might well be the third best clay court player in tennis history, after Nadal and Bjorn Borg, and certainly is among the top five.

Why doesn’t the GOAT see this as a challenge? Why isn’t he smelling the finish line? A great competitor doesn’t just tap out.

Federer is probably right that Wimbledon gives him a better chance. He has won there eight times and has just one French Open title, when he was able to avoid Nadal, who had gotten hurt and lost.

So strategically, maybe this makes some sense. And he did play 3½ hours in his third-round, four-set win over Dominik Koepfer. He said at the time that he was tired after the second set but took it as a positive that his body held up. 

But Federer surely knew he’d have tough physical matches when he entered the French.

On the Tennis Channel, announcer Jim Courier, a former French Open champ, said multiple times last week that Federer was looking at this year’s French Open only as “batting practice.’’

The French Open is not batting practice or spring training for Wimbledon. It is one of tennis’ four majors. And if Federer wasn’t planning to try to get to the end of the tournament, then he shouldn’t have entered it.

Someone else could have gotten his spot in the draw, but was left out so Federer could take batting practice.

No, this was not the move of a GOAT. Only Federer knows his body, but it doesn’t look right to see him walk away from the fight.

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Written by Greg Couch

Greg earned the 2007 Peter Lisagor Award as the best sports columnist in the Chicagoland area for his work with the Chicago Sun-Times, where he started as a college football writer in 1997 before becoming a general columnist in 2003. He also won a Lisagor in 2016 for his commentary in RollingStone.com and The Guardian.

Couch penned articles and columns for CNN.com/Bleacher Report, AOL Fanhouse, and The Sporting News and contributed as a writer and on-air analyst for FoxSports.com and Fox Sports 1 TV. In his journalistic roles, Couch has covered the grandest stages of tennis from Wimbledon to the Olympics, among numerous national and international sporting spectacles. He also won first place awards from the U.S. Tennis Writers Association for his event coverage and column writing on the sport in 2010.

8 Comments

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  1. COUCH: “I know that Federer is 39 and returning from a long layoff. And even before the French, he said it wasn’t realistic to think he could win, and that he was, instead, using it to get match-tough again before Wimbledon. So Wimbledon was his focus, his aim.”

    So you answered your own whiny diatribe as to what Federer was planning to do all along.

  2. Mr. Couch your obvious bias for Rafa greatly influenced this article. RF is almost 40, he’s been playing tennis at the top level for years. He has had a series of injuries over the last few years. He didn’t exit in fear he withdrew to preserve his body for other Majors. Majors that fit his game better at this time in his life. Is he the GOAT? That is such a subjective term. Personally I don’t think Tom Brady is the GOAT, but if I let the numbers speak. I’m wrong. RF may not be the tennis GOAT, but he deserves more respect than calling his withdrawal an attempt to avoid playing ND or RF.

  3. Pro athletes now are more informed about medical decisions than ever before. I’m sure seeing several of them in incredible physical discomfort later into their lives is giving them some pause. In due he wants to be able to walk at fifty, and play with his children as they grow up.
    There’s more to life than sports, and he’s the one who has to live it.

  4. Dear Mr. Federer, please consider going down to your local courts and play a romping game of “pickle ball”. Perhaps, it will scrub off that visage of narcissism that is suffocating athletes currently. Mr. Couch, your writing is becoming cliched, a thesaurus might help….GOAT, really, originality please.

  5. Rafa has an amazing record on the red clay of Roland Garros, no doubt…13-0 in the French Open. Other players will tell you the clay suits his game “perfectly”, using an unimaginable amount of topspin.
    What they won’t say is that Rafa doesn’t have the foot speed for grass and is somewhat better on hardcourt than on Wimbledon’s grass courts. And of course he can’t run around to his forehand and tee up the ball on those surfaces like he can on clay because the clay surface significantly slows down the opponent’s shot. As Ted Rand points out, Roger is 4 years older than Rafa.
    Rafa has 7 majors on the other three surfaces while Roger has 19 majors on the other three surfaces. So, Greg, if you had to add an asterisk to one or the other’s career major stats, who would you pick?

  6. Take Nadal out of France and he has a total of 7 slam wins. 7. He’s absolutely the greatest clay court player evah. He’s 13-0 in French finals but he’s under 50% in other finals. In the other 3 slam finals he’s 7-8. How is Nadal the GOAT when he’s lost more finals than he’s won if you take out the French?

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