MADRID — As Roger Federer sauntered onto the clay for a tennis match for the first time in three years, “comeback” did not seem quite the right description.
Federer might have been out of sight at this time of year since 2016, but he has hardly been invisible the rest of the year, winning major titles, returning briefly to No. 1 and defying the passage of time.
But tennis on clay is not like tennis on any other surface, as Federer is well aware after growing up playing on it in Switzerland and after spending some of his adulthood trying and failing to keep pace on it with Rafael Nadal.
The footwork and ball bounces are distinct, the shot selection and mentality, too. It is also, beyond any statistical doubt, Federer’s weakest surface, although he is hardly a weakling on it. But he is up for a challenge, even at 37 with little left to prove on any tennis court. And he certainly met the challenge on Tuesday, disposing of Richard Gasquet, a familiar foe, by 6-2, 6-3 in just 52 minutes at the Madrid Open.