It started in 2000, and the first of what is now a record 65 Grand Slam appearances on the bounce.
I always believe there’s new things you can learn, but there’s always a way of staying motivated, staying hungry
Later that same year, the young Swiss who had just turned 19 would meet his future wife, Mirka, at the Sydney Olympics, and although he fell just one win short of the bronze medal, falling for Mirka brought richer rewards: They have been together ever since and now have four children.
In 2001, Federer won the Hopman Cup with fellow Swiss star Martina Hingis, and a year later, he won the Sydney title.
Come 2004, and the Grand Slams began to arrive thick and fast. His first came the summer before at Wimbledon, but a glorious Melbourne run of 11 straight semi-finals began with the first of his four Australian titles.
Of late, Federer has taken to playing in Brisbane before the first Major of the year, another success story featuring three finals, and the trophy in 2015. That title match also happened to be his 1,000th match-win.
If there has been one fly in the ointment, though, it appeared this year, as Federer battled with a virus through his Brisbane campaign, and he took to his bed soon after his final, croaky press conference: “Definitely got to get over it as quickly as possible… so I am going to rest up tomorrow.”
Now, after five days of far-from-ideal sweltering-then-chilling Melbourne weather, and back at work with a vengeance on and off court, he has continued to field questions about his health.
To the relief of his fans, though, by the time he talked to 7 News on Wednesday, things were already on the up—though perhaps a drop of champagne at the Moet & Chandon ‘do’ where he appeared as ‘brand ambassador’, helped the sore throat.
“I’m OK. I practised today, also yesterday, but I’ll take another day off tomorrow, like I did on Monday. I really don’t want to feel unwell when the tournament starts. I’m feeling a little bit better but not quite 100 percent. I trained with the roof closed—they were nice enough to shut the roof—so it wasn’t crazy weather in there.”
By the weekend, and pre-tournament media day, it was still Federer’s health that opened proceedings.
“Better, yeah. Thank you. Cough’s gone. The cold’s 90 percent gone. I’m happy. The last couple days I’ve been able to practise normally. I’m relieved that since Thursday now I’m better.”
Well enough, indeed, to take part in Kids’ Day and to play a couple more practice sessions with old mate Lleyton Hewitt, who is about to appear in his 20th and last Australian Open.
The Aussie is the same age as Federer, 34, also has children, and has played just one fewer Grand Slams than the Swiss. In personality, in playing style, in career numbers, they are very different—but Hewitt won both their very first match in Lyon 1999, and their very last, in the 2014 Brisbane final, and through 20 years of competition, they have become not just respectful of each other’s achievements but appreciative of one other, too.
“I played him the first time when we were maybe 15 in Zurich at the World Youth Cup. We were supposed to play the juniors here, the doubles together, in ‘98. He won Adelaide [and] got a wild card in singles, doubles and mixed here in the pros: I played the juniors. We were supposed to play here in the juniors. He dumped me!
“We always got along well. It was sometimes feisty on the court, but it was always respectful. I always admired his work ethic, his on-court fighting spirit, even though it annoyed me sometimes because in the beginning it was more crazy than now. [But] Lleyton made me figure out my game and made me definitely a better player, as well. I enjoyed the battles with him.”
It would take a sequence of big upsets in Melbourne for them to play one last match. Hewitt, who began his wind-down last year, won just four matches from 13 played, and none against a top-100 player. To reach the final in a fortnight’s time, he is likely to need wins over David Ferrer, John Isner, Andy Murray, and either Stan Wawrinka or Rafael Nadal.
Not that Federer’s route to the dream meeting—for Australians, Swiss and many in between—is straightforward. Aside from the likes of Grigor Dimitrov, Tomas Berdych, Marin Cilic and Nick Kyrgios, he has the ultimate challenge in the semis of world No1 and five-time champion, Djokovic.
Why Federer can afford to be optimistic, though, is that he has had more success against the super Serb than most of his rivals. They met eight times last year, seven times in finals, and three times Federer won. Bearing in mind that Djokovic lost only two other matches after his title run in Melbourne last year, and those are decent odds.
So while Federer has been quizzed about what new coach Ivan Ljubicic will bring to the table, and in particular to finding a weakness in Djokovic’s armour, the Swiss has refuted that particular angle. No, he said, he is not changing particular elements in his game specifically for Djokovic.
“I’m always on the lookout for how to play certain players or certain tournaments or about my own game. So Novak might be a small piece of the puzzle, but it wasn’t the piece… Last year I did quite well against Novak. Of course, I’ve got to keep it up. I always believe there’s new things you can learn, but there’s always a way of staying motivated, staying hungry. Someone like Ivan can also help do that.”
There are, of course, other big rivals—what Federer regards as the ‘big five’ rather than ‘four’—who need slotting into the Grand Slam puzzle, too.
“The top five guys really, with Stan [Wawrinka], Murray, myself, Novak and Rafa [Nadal]—now the rankings are back to more normal again after Rafa worked his way back up… I think the same guys are playing very well, but of course, Novak deserves a little star next to his name right now because he’s been doing extremely well. Same for Stan really. Hasn’t been said: He’s won Slams the last couple seasons.”
But Federer is clearly backing his own chances, too, as he told 7News: “The plan is trying actually to win the Australian Open. That’s why I travelled all this way again. I played OK in Brisbane, [though] it’s been a tough last 10 days or so, but the idea is to pop champagne in a few weeks, yes.”
Perhaps Australia will be good to Federer again, even if it does not arrange a final showdown with home favourite Hewitt. If the Swiss reaches the fourth round, he will become the first man in the Open era to win 300 Grand Slam matches.
Melbourne will no doubt have three big, white numbers ready and waiting for the photo shoot in Rod Laver Arena come next Friday.
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