Rewind the tape all the way back to—sheesh—April 2, the date of Roger Federer’s last professional tennis match, a 6-3, 6-4 victory over Rafael Nadal to win the Miami Open. Afterwards he reportedly told his rival that he, Nadal, would “destroy” the clay court season, and Rafa delivered, piling up a 24-1 record and four titles, including the big one. Yesterday Federer offered a dollop of follow-up praise: “I could not have defeated Nadal on Sunday, not in this condition,” he conceded. Federer skipped the entire clay court season, even the Grand Slam, nominally for reasons of “tennis and physical preparation,” but presumably also because he wanted no piece of that.
Nadal’s 2017 French Open was a knife through butter, cleaner than any major Federer has torn through. Though we were deprived of the answer to an enticing thought experiment—how would that new backhand hold up on clay, under the abuse of Rafa’s spin?—it’s easy enough to envision even the Swiss as another straight-set corpse in the Spaniard’s wake.
Apparently Federer spent most of his downtime training and keeping his eyes off the tour. “Honestly, I saw very little tennis during my break,” he said. “Just the scores. [Countryman] Stan [Wawrinka] I followed a little bit, and of course I felt bad for him during the final.” Now, Rafa will take some time to rest his legs—not that he had to exert himself too hard, given that he lost just four sets total in the intervening months—while Federer returns to competition and tunes up for his favorite major.
Wednesday Federer plays in the second round of the Stuttgart Open, a small 250-level grass court tournament where the second seed is Grigor Dimitrov, his inferior clone, and as such a pretty cushy welcome back to the tour. His first opponent is 39-year-old Tommy Haas, who’s both the tournament director at Indian Wells and an occasional professional tennis player, slowly grading into retirement. Federer and Haas have been at it for a while: the first time the two squared up was at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. Federer has a 13-3 edge.
Halfway through 2017, Federer and Nadal have both claimed their one Grand Slam apiece. They’ve played three times this year, with Federer taking each. As pleasant a plot line as their duel has been—certainly it’s a heavy dose of fan service—the simmering subplot is this: No younger player has been good enough to stop the old guys. Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic are stuck in neighboring ruts. Dominic Thiem couldn’t replicate the feat in a best-of-five; Alexander Zverev flamed out in a tough draw; David Goffin was felled by a freak tarp accident; Dimitrov will seemingly never deliver on promise; Nick Kyrgios is Nick Kyrgios. Unless any of them wake up soon, the two greatest might go on to split the rest of the year’s major spoils, too.