So when the oldest man ever to win the end-of-year World Tour Finals championship lifted the trophy for a record sixth time, he admitted it was probably “the strongest finish I’ve ever had in my career”.
Much of Federer’s end-of-year success was put down to renowned Swiss timing, for he had pulled out of the autumn Asian swing to rest some sore muscles, and that left enough in the tank for London while other players succumbed to injury or talked of exhaustion.
For Rafael Nadal and David Ferrer, there were still Davis Cup duties and they proved to be a back-breaker. No sooner had they claimed the title for Spain than Nadal made a dramatic announcement:
“Next year, I will not play. It’s an Olympic year, I don’t want to overplay. So next year, my participation in the Davis Cup is impossible.” Nadal added, even before the Australian Open, that he would take the whole of February out to prepare for the rest of the long 2012 schedule.
David Ferrer, though, went a step further, retiring from Davis Cup permanently: “This is the end of the party. I’m older, I probably don’t have a good physical condition and I want to play at the Olympic Games.”
So this week’s Davis Cup will see a depleted Spain—it is also without Feliciano Lopez and Fernando Verdasco. 2010 winner Serbia is missing Novak Djokovic, still recovering from his Australian Open marathon campaign and confirming this week that his focus for the year ahead will be Grand Slams and the Olympics.
Another interesting absence from Davis Cup is Juan Martin del Potro’s. Interesting, because his coach described the change of surface from the hard courts of Australia to clay in Germany and back to hard courts in Rotterdam and the North American swing as very ‘high risk’ for injury.
Federer, then, could have called upon any of these reasons to do what he has done since 2004: skip the first-round tie. Yet he has decided to fly in the face of each of them.
Rather than limit his schedule in the run-up to the summer double-header of Wimbledon and the Olympics, he is playing his hardest spring schedule in eight years: the Davis Cup this week, Rotterdam next, Dubai the week after, and an exhibition in New York in transit to Indian Wells and Miami.
And like del Potro, he will also face a switch from hard-to-clay-to-hard, since the Swiss team has opted for the soft stuff against a USA team that thrives better on hard.
Not since 2005—a year of 81 wins to four losses, 11 titles and two Grand Slams—has Federer played anything but a Doha, Australian Open, Dubai and Indian Wells sequence—and only twice has he played all four. Until now, that is—adding the Davis Cup for good measure.
One factor has certainly helped make this possible in practice. The ITF has altered the schedule so that Round One has moved from its previous slot between Dubai and the Masters pairing of Indian Wells-Miami to a fortnight after the Australian Open and before the hard-court 500s.
The quarter-final tie has also moved, from its equally nightmarish slot after Wimbledon into an altogether tidier spot between the North American hard courts and the start of the clay season.
It’s a schedule change that might explain the Federer rethink over Davis Cup, but it does not explain the addition of a highly-competitive Rotterdam 500—with Tomas Berdych, del Potro and three more top-20 players—before an even tougher Dubai draw the week after, with Djokovic, Andy Murray, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Mardy Fish, and again Berdych and del Potro.
Perhaps he plans an early onslaught on the rankings, though with substantial points to defend until the French Open—two finals and three semis—he will need to convert events to titles as well as adding points from fresh events, and that’s no easy task in the face of a Djokovic-Nadal-Murray phalanx that will be rested and hungry.
Perhaps he also has in mind his 2008 Olympic doubles gold medal: Davis Cup would certainly fine-tune his partnership with Stan Wawrinka.
Perhaps, more simply, it is Federer’s long-postponed push to savour the unique Davis Cup achievement that his rivals have already enjoyed. Ahead of his country’s fourth meeting between with the USA, he recalled his emotion at winning their 2001 tie against the US team. Still a teenager, and playing in only his fifth Cup tie, he won all three of his matches:
“2001 was a big win for me and a tough tie within the team for Switzerland…I think it was my first emotional outburst on a tennis court because I was so exhausted…It was the start of great things for me.” (He went on to beat Pete Sampras at Wimbledon.)
In those early years, before strings of wins took his annual match count towards 90, he played most ties in most years. And while he has not played a first-round tie since 2004, he has played in every September World Group playoff—bar one in 2010—and has not lost a singles rubber since 2003.
Indeed Federer is one of the most constant active players in Davis Cup competition—and it is not simply down to his longevity. His 53 matches outdo Andy Roddick’s 45, David Ferrer’s 21, Janko Tipsarevic’s 50, Lopez’s 28. Only the slightly older Lleyton Hewitt and Ivan Ljubicic—and he is now retired from Davis Cup—have played more apart from longer-lived doubles specialists such as Nenad Zimonjic and Daniel Nester.
Federer’s ambition to fill one of the few remaining holes in his resume is, of course, dependent on another man in the Swiss team. Wawrinka’s stalwart win over Hewitt to seal victory in Australia last September has been held up by Federer as one more good reason to support his team: “It’s only normal for me to play the first round after that heroic effort of his.”
Both men will have to hit the ground running against a quality team comprising world No8 Fish and No17 John Isner, not to mention one half of the most successful doubles team in the world, Mike Bryan, and the hugely talented teenager Ryan Harrison.
The Swiss, on clay and at home, are favourites—just—in what is shaping up to be the tie of the weekend. For Federer, it looks like something more: the start of the most intense spring schedule he’s played since he was 22. That’s a bold way to attack Olympic year.
Austria, No16 v Russia, No8
Location: Wiener Neustadt, Austria, indoor clay
R1: Jurgen Melzer, No40 v Igor Kunitsyn, No79
R2: Andreas Haider-Maurer, No127 v Alex Bogomolov Jr, No34
R3: Oliver Marach / Alexander Peya v Nikolay Davydenko / Mikhail Youzhny
R4: Melzer v Bogomolov Jr
R5: Haider-Maurer v Kunitsyn
Canada, No14 v France, No4
Location: Vancouver, Canada, indoor hard
R1: Pospisil v Tsonga
R2: Raonic v Benneteau
R3: Nestor / Pospisil v Benneteau / Llodra
R4: Raonic v Tsonga
R5: Pospisil v Benneteau
Czech Republic, No5 v Italy, No13
Location: Ostrava, Czech Republic, indoor hard
R1: Radek Stepanek, No30 v Andreas Seppi, No42
R2: Tomas Berdych, No7 v Simone Bolelli, No135
R3: Frantisek Cermak / Likas Rosol v Daniele Bracciali / Potito Starace
R4: Berdych v Seppi
R5: Stepanek v Bolelli
Germany, No9 v Argentina, No3
Location: Bamberg, Germany, indoor clay
R1: Philipp Petzschner, No56 v Juan Monaco, No23
R2: Florian Mayer No21 v David Nalbandian, No84
R3: Tommy Haas / Petzschner v Karlovic / Juan Ignacio Chela/ Eduardo Schwank
R4: Mayer v Monaco
R5: Petzschner v Nalbandian
Japan, No17 v Croatia, No7
Location: Hyogo, Japan, indoor hard
R1: Go Soeda, No90 v Ivan Dodig, No55
R2: Kei Nishikori, No20 v Ivo Karlovic, No43
R3: Tatsuma Ito / Yuichi Sugita v Karlovic / Lovro Zovko
R4: Nishikori v Dodig
R5: Soeda v Karlovic
Serbia, No2 v Sweden, No12
Location: Nis, Serbia, indoor hard
R1: Janko Tipsarevic, No9 v Filip Prpic, No1426
R2: Viktor Troicki, No22 v Michael Ryderstedt, No348
R3: Tipsarevic / Nenad Zimonjic v Johan Brunstrom / Lindstedt
R4: Tipsarevic v Ryderstedt
R5: Troicki v Prpic
Spain, No1 v Kazakhstan, No10
Location: Oviedo, Spain, indoor clay
R1: Juan Carlos Ferrero, No48 v Mikail Kukushkin, No61
R2: Nicolas Almagro, No11 v Andrey Golubev, No132
R3: Marcel Granollers / Marc Lopez v Evgeny Korolev / Yuriy Schukin
R4: Almagro v Kukushkin
R5: Ferrero v Golubev
Switzerland, No15 v USA, No6
Location: Fribourg, Switzerland, indoor clay
R1: Stan Wawrinka, No28 v Mardy Fish, No8
R2: Roger Federer, No3 v John Isner, No 17
R3: Federer / Wawrinka v Mike Bryan / Ryan Harrison
R4: Federer v Fish
R5: Wawrinka v Isner