It was March in the California desert. Roger Federer was back at No. 1, and Feliciano Lopez, a fellow 36-year-old, was asked if any man would ever get to the top spot at that advanced age again.
“No,” Lopez said to me immediately. “There are many things that Roger achieved that won’t happen again.”
That is difficult to contest in light of Federer’s winning combination of excellence and longevity, but Lopez is about to match one Federer record at this year’s French Open, which began in Paris on Sunday.
This will be Lopez’s 65th consecutive appearance in a Grand Slam singles tournament, the same number that Federer managed before skipping the 2016 French Open to preserve his then-ailing body.
Such big-picture thinking has paid off for Federer, who returned from that break to win three more major singles titles and run his men’s record to 20.
Lopez, a stylish left-hander who long ago was one of Federer’s junior rivals, has yet to get past the quarterfinals in any Grand Slam in singles, but he, too, has stood the test of time in a sport that has seen far too many injuries and surgeries among the elite of late.
“It’s a remarkable number, and I’m very proud of it,” Lopez said in a recent interview. “It’s something I never did expect, but I understand that it’s also something that happens because I was a little bit lucky not to have big injuries in my career.”
And yet to some degree, you do make your own luck in life and on court, and Lopez has had to make smart decisions to stay in the game. That has been quite a challenge with his acrobatic, attacking style, even if that style did allow him to often shorten the points.
Lopez credits his Grand Slam streak in part to the realization at 30 that he had to change. “I knew if I wanted to extend my career I had to take care of my body more, go more to the gym, do a lot of prevention and eat healthy, and it has been working,” he said. “It’s true that in the last five, six years there have been so many injuries and so many players pulling out week after week.
He has cut soda, bread and dairy products out of his diet and reduced his carbohydrate intake significantly. He said he had not reduced his practice time on the game’s more unforgiving surfaces, like the hard courts he grew up on in Madrid. But he now spends more time training off court than on.
Lopez and Darren Cahill, who is an analyst for ESPN and a coach and former player, both notice the younger generation, led by the 21-year-old German Alexander Zverev, becoming more focused on optimized training at an early age.
“It’s not about training harder than the competition, it’s more about training smarter, and setting yourself up for the long journey,” Cahill said. “Alex Zverev is a perfect example of investing in his body and future four years ago by putting a great team around him and prioritizing the off-court work. Look at the dividends it’s paying now. Feliciano is another player that has gone about his career in the right way.”
Lopez’s streak began at Roland Garros at the 2002 French Open; he lost in the final round of qualifying but made it into the main draw as a lucky loser and then advanced to the second round by defeating the same Spanish compatriot, Didac Perez, who had beaten him in qualifying. Lopez was then beaten by Tommy Haas in straight sets.
Sixteen years later, Lopez has yet to miss another major tournament. He came close to doing so only at the 2012 French Open when he pulled a muscle in his side during a practice session before the event. He ended up playing despite.