Federer and Wawrinka collide in Singapore en route to intriguing 2016

Roger Federer holds off a Stan Wawrinka fightback to triumph over his compatriot at the International Premier League Tennis in Singapore

As the final leg of the International Premier League Tennis roadshow hit Singapore, it was immediately wall-to-wall action for Swiss stars Stan Wawrinka and Roger Federer, here to headline home teams Singapore Slammers and UAE Royals.

Wawrinka, world No4 and French Open champion, was the first to land, just 24 hours before making his debut in this fast-paced team-tennis event and only three days after winning his first Swiss Athlete of the Year award in Switzerland.

Next came world No3 Federer, flying in overnight with fellow competitors from the Dubai leg of the tournament.

Putting jet lag and training blocks behind them, the two were soon shaking hands with dignitaries and fans at the luxury Twin Peaks development of the Slammers sponsor, OUE. For at the quaintly titled ‘tea party’, the stars faced queues of fans awaiting their chance for a selfie and a handshake, while the OUE website pleaded on its enquiry page: “Please do not use this page to request invitations to the tea party with Roger Federer or Stan Wawrinka.”

Both men, these days, take such diversions and duties in their stride, but there was business at hand on court. The teams of both, in this final stage of the touring tournament, are competing for the second spot in the winner-takes-all final against the standout team of the series, the Micromax Indian Aces.

Both men faced challenges, too—to their pride if nothing else. Federer had already played six sets in New Delhi and Dubai, and was yet to win in doubles or singles. Come Singapore, surely again jet-lagged, he was scheduled to play just the opening day, so upped his chances by opting into three of the sets: mixed doubles, men’s doubles, and the show-stopping men’s singles against Wawrinka.

Federer lost the first, to take his tally to 0-7, but eventually it all came together when he joined up with the former No1 veteran doubles player, Daniel Nestor. The 43-year-old begged for a time-out to slow things down: As team captain pointed out to Federer, “Don’t forget you’re playing with an old man!”

Wawrinka subbed in for the Slammers at the conclusion of the doubles—after all, he faced an even tougher challenge: trying to take on Federer with no experience of the court or the rules and regulations. But the elder Swiss got his win:
“I didn’t feel I helped the team very much, maybe just good vibes and trying to help them play better, but for myself, I haven’t showed up enough, so this feels good. And a great pleasure playing with Danny for the first time.”

Nestor admitted he had asked Federer to play many times before and always been turned down, adding: “I’m 43, so no-one wants to play with me any more!”

So going into the last set, Federer had the double advantage of momentum and a stone-cold opponent, and he raced to 3-0. But as Wawrinka found his legs and mastered the format, it was Federer’s turn to tire: only 34 rather than 43, but he too took a time-out. It worked, just, as he found his best serving to hold off a Wawrinka comeback, 6-4.

Federer, then, finished his UAE Slammers residency on a positive note, and full of praise for the fun it has brought to his schedule. But he would not be pushed into committing to next year, in what will be a rollercoaster of a calendar that, he revealed last night, will excise every clay tournament before Roland Garros.

Federer said after the World Tour Finals last month that he had decided to play more grass in 2016—witness the addition of Stuttgart immediately after the French Open—and the long break he now proposes between Indian Wells and Paris suggests that he does indeed intend to throw all his physical resources at winning his favourite Major, Wimbledon, once more.

Also high on his list will be the Olympics in Rio, which sits amid a gruelling hard-court run that currently includes Toronto and Cincinnati and culminates in the US Open. No accident, perhaps, that this schedule is built around the two Majors where he reached the finals this year.

Wawrinka is already in training mode, and the competitive sets of the IPTL should, as for Andy Murray, help to sharpen his preparation before the 2016 season kicks off at the start of January.

Wawrinka said: “I’m practising really hard. It’s two weeks now that I’ve been working on a lot of fitness—for 10 days—and then on tennis.

“It is never an easy decision to add something to the off-season but I heard some great comments about the IPTL from last year from the players, from Roger, that it was great fun. I think the timing was good for me to play in Singapore.”

His training has been near Geneva, in stark contrast to the coming heat of Australia. But as he explained: “It’s not about what you are doing the weeks before, it’s what you are doing all year.”

Wawrinka will acclimatise, to heat and high-level competition, at the six-man round-robin Mubadala Championships in Abu Dhabi before heading, as defending champion, to Chennai and thence the Australian Open, which he won in 2014.

There can be no doubt he will go there with big ambitions after becoming the only man to deny Novak Djokovic a Major this year—the French Open—and with wins over Federer, Murray and Rafael Nadal to his name through the season.

What’s more, as Federer is not playing between Indian Wells and Paris, and Wawrinka won only eight matches during the same period last year, he can also target a rise to No3 in the rankings.

So perhaps the old order in Swiss tennis is facing a realignment, such that by the time Federer and Wawrinka join forces in Rio to defend Olympic gold, it will be the junior by four years, ‘Stan the Man’, who is the senior partner.

But then by Rio, if Federer has his way, the soon-to-be 35-year-old may be a Grand Slam champion.

Both will be going for gold—alone and with Swiss partners—and their female compatriots will be doing the same. What a fascinating year lies ahead, then, for a nation that continues, in both men’s and women’s tennis, to punch so far above its weight.

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