Basel 2017: Roger Federer begins pursuit of title No8; Cilic and Dimitrov confirm London

Roger Federer is preparing to try and win his eighth title in Basel as Marin Cilic and Grigor Dimitrov book their places at the ATP Finals

roger federer
Roger Federer has had a fruitful 2017 season Photo: Marianne Bevis

The superlatives, when it comes to Roger Federer and the Swiss Indoors, have certainly piled up over the years.

He talked ahead of his home tournament about defending the title where he was himself a ball-boy at the age of 12. But then he paused, furrowed his brow, and asked for confirmation. Had he won when he last played here?

The answer, of course, was yes, but that was two years ago, and a lot of water has passed under the Federer bridge since. For a start, he bypassed the entire second half of the 2016 season, Basel included, to restore his fitness after knee surgery.

However, considering what a memorable occasion it had been, it showed an unusual lapse in memory from the Swiss. That final was, in fact, his first and only meeting in Basel against arch rival Rafael Nadal, and was a hard-fought final into the bargain, won in three set by the Swiss man.

It was also the first in what has become his longest winning streak against the man who has dogged his career from the first. Federer this year stormed to four victories over Nadal, and was now even in pursuit of the Spaniard at the top of the rankings.

But reassured that, yes, he had won in his last visit to the tournament, he reeled off those superlatives with ease: seven Basel titles, the final in his last 10 appearances, and a personal record of 12 finals in total since he first played as a qualifier, aged just 16, in 1997.

The statistics, and a 61-9 record, have indeed been formidable for each and every opponent in Basel, and only the very best, in the shape of Juan Martin del Potro and Novak Djokovic, have denied Federer through more than a decade.

Yet this time, the Swiss admitted, he was nervous because he had broken his own rule about looking at his draw. He told ATPWorldTour.com:
“I’m really hoping to win that first one and then sort of get into the tournament. I have a really tough draw if you just look one round ahead, with Benoit Paire [who beat Steve Johnson]. I usually don’t do that but it’s a tough little section for an ATP500.

“Thankfully… I’ve been in the finals the last 10 times I’ve played here, but there’s no guarantee I will do it again this year. So that’s why I arrived early, I’ve practised a lot here on the centre court already, I’m starting to feel the ball better, and my body is ready to go.”

It was not surprising that he felt a little nervous about his opener, too. The talented 19-year-old Frances Tiafoe has made a real assault on the top 100 this season and, more significantly, made a real assault on Federer in both their meetings in 2017. He took the Swiss to a first set tie-break in Miami, and then at the US Open, took Federer to a 6-4 fifth set with some big-time—and durable—tennis in the first round.

However, the break from the home-town man came swiftly and ruthlessly against the teenager: Four break point chances, the last one converted to take the very first game. Already Federer had shown his intent: jump all over Tiafoe’s second serve and follow it into the net.

The Swiss serve that was so devastatingly accurate in winning the Shanghai Masters little more than a week ago took a while to find its groove, but he held courtesy of a fine backhand exchange, and then broke again with a reactive backhand drive volley onto the side line, 3-0.

Tiafoe faced a break point in the fifth game, too, but took the initiative behind a couple of clever body serves, 1-4. However, an oh-so-casual love hold from Federer, and a couple of cracking forehand winners against the American’s serve, and the Swiss had another break for the set, 6-1, with 32 points to 18, in under half an hour.

In the second set, 14 minutes and a love hold took Federer to 3-2, but thus far, Tiafoe was hanging with the Swiss as his serve picked up speed and some justified rewards. The teenager faced a break point in the sixth game, but fended it off with an ace, and then fired a backhand winner down the line to hold. It showed great character under huge pressure—not just imposed by Federer but by 99 percent of the St Jakobshalle arena.

However, at just short of the hour, that pressure told, and Federer broke for 5-3. The denouement was swift, an imposing hold and the set, 6-3, with not a point dropped on Federer’s first serve in the match, not a break point chance offered up, 22 winners to 11 errors.

The early loss finished Tiafoe’s bid for the Next Gen ATP Finals in Milan where only the top eight will contest the newest tournament on the tour.

Federer’s bid for No1, on the other hand, continues: Not bad, considering that this time last year, there were plenty who wondered whether the Swiss would make it back to the elite level at all—especially as he began 2017 ranked No17. Two Majors, three Masters, plus the Halle 500, have proved otherwise.

However, there are four more opponents to beat if Federer is to make it eight in Basel, and there are several men along the way who could upset the No1 applecart too.

For a start, the No2 seed Marin Cilic is the defending champion in Basel, and received an easy pass to the second round when Florian Mayer retired after losing the first set. In the process, Cilic confirmed his qualification for the World Tour Finals next month.

Also lined up in the bottom half is del Potro, whose fine win in Stockholm at the weekend puts him into contention for London too—and he has more than proved his form on the Basel courts with those two title wins over Federer.

Before that, Federer could find the flamboyant teenager, Denis Shapovalov, or the in-form Adrian Mannarino in the quarters. As for the semis, David Goffin is also chasing a place in London, after bouncing back from ankle injury to make up big ground through the Asian swing, winning titles in Shenzhen and Tokyo. He does, though, face dangerous #NextGen player Hyeon Chung in the second round.

Beyond Basel, Federer has been cagey about whether or not he will play the last Masters of the year in Paris. He needs to do so if he wants the No1 ranking, but he has made little secret of his main priority for the remainder of the season: the World Tour Finals.

Federer and Nadal sealed their spots in London many weeks ago, and have since been joined by Dominic Thiem, Alexander Zverev, Cilic and also Grigor Dimitrov, who while not playing himself this week, benefits from losses by Kevin Anderson and Sam Querrey in Vienna.

So who remains in contention for the last two places in the Race to London?

Race to London

Qualified
1 Rafael Nadal 10,465
2 Roger Federer 8,550
3 Alexander Zverev 4,400
4 Dominic Thiem 3,725
5 Grigor Dimitrov 3,560 [not playing this week]
6 Marin Cilic 3,535

In contention
7 David Goffin 2,750
8 Pablo Carreno Busta 2,605
9 Sam Querrey 2,525
10 Kevin Anderson 2,470
11 Juan Martin del Potro 2,135
12 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 2,055
13 Roberto Bautista Agut 1,925

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