When Roger Federer, a model of durability throughout his playing career, damaged his knee early in 2016 running a bath for his girls, many feared it was the beginning of the end for the former number one. With no Grand Slam titles since victory over Andy Murray at Wimbledon in 2012 and age against him, his career looked to be on a steady decline. After a brief comeback, culminating in a semi-final loss to Canada’s Milos Raonic at Wimbledon, Federer took a six month layoff as his ageing body appeared to be giving way to the demands of the game. Some thought that surgery might have spirited him into retirement, while most assumed any return would be a pale reflection of former glories. How mistaken we all were.
Since his comeback in January, the 35 year old has defied time and critics, breaking his 5 year grand slam duck with a stunning victory in Melbourne, and adding to that an ATP World Tour Masters 1000 title at Indian Wells a fortnight ago. Federer last won the Australian Open and Indian Wells together in 2006, and much has changed since then;
Federer goes into today’s QF in Miami boasting a 17-1 win-loss record for 2017. With the rest of the field already looking depleted with the withdrawals of both Murray and Djokovic, and with Del Potro (l. Federer), Nishikori (l. Fognini) and Wawrinka (l. A. Zverev) all out, unsurprisingly Federer is the bookies favourite to win the tournament. Tonight’s opponent is Tomas Berdych, who is no stranger to Federer. The Swiss leads the H2H 17-6, but Federer will remember his painful exit at the hands of the Czech at Wimbledon in 2010 as well as losing that same year at their only other meeting in Miami. However, Berdych has been struggling for form of late and this is reflected in Federer’s start price of 1.2 at JAbet.com.
Elsewhere in Miami Fabio Fognini’s reward for ousting Japan’s Kei Nishikori is a semi-final spot against Rafa Nadal. Provided Federer wins tonight he’ll play the winner of Alexander Zverev and Nick Kyrgios, who on their day nobody will relish coming up against. Nonetheless, all signs point to a Federer-Nadal final. Federer’s victory over Nadal in Indian Wells made it three in a row for the Swiss for the first time in their long and fierce rivalry. But it was the nature of that victory that was so impressive in Indian Wells; Federer didn’t just beat Rafael Nadal, he destroyed him. Much credit must be attributed to Federer’s coach, Ivan Ljubicic. The pair have worked on Federer’s backhand, so long the Achilles Heel in his battles with Nadal. For years Rafa has peppered that wing, drawing a defensive sliced return. In Indian Wells in particular, Federer stood tall and swung hard, inflicting so many backhand winners that a flummoxed Nadal had to try targeting the forehand instead. Nadal still leads the pairs H2H an impressive 23-13 but the pendulum certainly seems to be swinging in the 35 year olds favour.
If Roger can emerge victorious in Miami, he will start to believe, along with his legion of fans, that he has a chance of returning to the summit of the rankings once again. He has already risen from 17th at the start of the year to 6th, and victory would see him leapfrog Raonic and Nishikori into 4th, close behind his compatriot Wawrinka. At the start of the year it would have been preposterous to insinuate that Federer, turning 36 this August, could challenge the strengthening duopoly of Murray and Djokovic, but the wheels are in motion. You only have to look at the ‘Race to London’ table to see how far he is eclipsing the others this term.
Djokovic will be losing 1000 ranking points this week but Federer will still have a long way to go to usurp him and even farther to reach Murray at the top. But with no points to defend in the second half of the calendar it’s not unthinkable. With Murray, who recently lost to world no.129 Vasek Pospisil, out injured until Monte Carlo, and with Djokovic’s more serious chronic elbow injury coupled with what seems to be a crisis of confidence, there is a window of opportunity for Federer. Perhaps the biggest test will be the clay season. The red stuff has never been Roger’s strongest surface, and the likes of Djokovic, if fit, and a reinvigorated Nadal will provide a stern test against winning any silverware. That said, if the Swiss musters a few decent runs in April and May, before a genuine title prospect on the green green grass of SW19, the points will rack up. A genuine opportunity to leap well beyond Andre Agassi’s record (33yrs 111days) as the oldest player in history to sit atop the rankings (spoiler alert: Serena Williams is only a month younger, so any such record could be short-lived).