Federer’s Australian Open win this year was arguably the greatest of his career — a career that many consider to be the greatest of all time. And the stagger in the accomplishment was hardly because of his age.
That Federer became the second oldest man to win a major title in the Open era is a feat in itself, but it was possibly the least of his achievements in Melbourne.
For starters, there was the six-month layoff. To miss out on half the season, but come back to win your first major in almost five years is astounding even for someone who has astonished the sporting world for a living, for a decade and a half.
Let’s not forget, there was barely any build up for Federer prior to the Australian Open, which he was precariously close to pulling out of at one point. It was almost straight from the practice courts in Basel to the Rod Laver Arena.
Even so, probably the most remarkable of his feats in Australia was the line-up that he outdid. Sure he didn’t have to face either Andy Murray or Novak Djokovic, but Federer — seeded 17th — beat four top 10 players en route to winning the Australian Open. The draw route to the trophy for Federer, at one point, looked like this: Berdych-Nishikori-Murray-Wawrinka-Djokovic. While Murray was beaten by the serve-and-volleying Mischa Zverev, Djokovic’s place in that route was eventually taken by one Rafael Nadal — arguably the bigger challenge for the Swiss, and the greatest he has faced in his career.
To put the final into context: Federer hadn’t beaten Nadal at a Grand Slam for 10 years, the 2007 Wimbledon final being his last win. Furthermore, he hadn’t ever beaten the Spaniard at a hard court major in three previous attempts (all in Australia).
If there’s one man Federer has hated standing in his way to winning any tennis silverware, it has been Rafael Nadal, regardless of the Spaniard’s form. And hence, doing so, with all the above-mentioned handicaps is what makes the Australian Open triumph probably the most special of his career.
Many felt that moment where Federer lifted the Aussie Open trophy, eight years after he had showed his first glimpse of vulnerability outside of clay, on that very court, against that very opponent, might have been tailor-made to sign off the greatest career of all time.
But Federer’s not done. Last month he signed a three-year deal with the Swiss Indoors tournament in his hometown Basel, meaning that he is looking go on to play till 2019 at the very least.
So with so many records already tumbled what does Federer intend to achieve in the next three years?
We all got a hint about that in Indian Wells last week.
In a replica of his gung ho showing in Melbourne, Federer came out of a section of the draw touted as tennis’ equivalent of the ‘group of death’. Many claimed that it was the toughest quarter tennis had ever seen. And it’s hard to argue against it.
In addition to Federer, we had Djokovic, Nadal (that’s 44 Grand Slam titles between the trio), Del Potro (add one more), Nick Kyrgios and Alexander Zverev — the latter two Next Gen stars.
Again the Swiss emerged from that section, after Kyrgios beat Djokovic and withdrew from his quarterfinal match against Federer. And again, he beat Nadal — this time a landslide 6-2, 6-3 win in the fourth round — to eventually overpower Wawrinka in the final. Federer now has won the two biggest tournaments of the year and is participating in the Miami Open — the year’s second ATP 1000 event — this week. Barring a blip against Russia’s Evgeny Donskoy in Dubai, prior to Indian Wells, Federer has enjoyed a flawless start to the season, which he said “wasn’t a part of the plan”.
With Federer’s dominance, Nadal making strides towards form and Djokovic’s well-documented slump, it’s easy to forget that Murray is the World No 1 right now.
The Scott might be the only one who still remembers that, and it might explain his inexplicable drop in form at a time when he was expected to surge ahead of Djokovic and establish himself as the undisputed numero uno in men’s tennis.
Djokovic’s struggles might be giving Murray a good cushion atop the ATP Rankings, but it’s Federer who has been by far and away the top player this year.
So is Federer, for the first time since 2009, the man to beat again?
Another deep run in Miami, even if he doesn’t bag the title, would surely put Federer right up there, maybe even make him the favourite for Wimbledon this year — chasing the elusive 8th crown to go ahead of Pete Sampras has been Federer’s number one goal every year since 2012.
But between Miami and the grass court season, comes the clay court season. And we all know who is desperate to get his teeth into that.
If Djokovic and Murray take their struggles to the clay court season, Nadal would become the overwhelming favourite for most clay tournaments this year, given his current form. While Murray still has the incentive of winning his first ever Roland Garros title after losing the final last year, Djokovic might prolong his hangover following completing a Career Grand Slam in Paris last year.
It would be hard to see Federer going full-throttle in the clay court season, especially if a resurgent Nadal is on one of his bulldozing runs on the dirt. But the Australian Open champion has done more than enough to shush up his doubters this year.
If Nadal finds his best form on clay, which he habitually does, and takes it to the second half of the season, this could be ‘the year of the Fedal’ — that looked as big an impossibility at the turn of the century as the size of their trophy cabinets. How about that US Open final we’ve all craved for the past decade fellas? At the moment Federer looks good to win anything, anywhere and against anyone — including his longtime archenemy.