“With age, I feel like I play down my chances because I don’t think a 36-year-old should be a favourite of a tournament.”
He paused, then smiled, as if to say, surely that’s obvious:
“Should not be the case… that’s why I see things more relaxed at the later stage of my career.”
And relaxed certainly seems to sum up the man who, by the end of last year, had notched up two more Majors to take extend his record tally to 19. During the autumn, he even had the chance to reclaim the No1 ranking. But instead, he took the more considered path, and having already opted out of the whole clay swing, he missed the Cincinnati Masters, one of his favourite tournaments, and opted out of the Paris Masters. His old rival—and increasingly his old friend—Rafael Nadal pressed on through every tournament and justifiably earned the No1 prize.
It was all the more extraordinary because both men had bounced back from extended injuries in 2016—with Federer down to No17 and Nadal down to No9—to contest their first Major final title since Paris in 2011, and their first Major meeting anywhere in three years. That, as it happens, was a semi in Australia, and a straight-sets win to Nadal, the Spaniard’s fifth straight victory over Federer. In 2017 alone, they would meet four more times, but this time, it was a clean sweep for Federer.
Now, the two of them arrived in Australia as the top two seeds, and this time, it was even more like old times: The No1 ranking was on the line. Even so, largely because of those scheduling decisions in 2017, Federer’s chances are slim. He has to win his 20th Major title, a record-equalling sixth Australian Open, and Nadal needs to lose before the quarters if the top spot is to change hands. And Federer’s task was made just that bit tougher by the draw.
For this time around, it is two more former Australian champions who find themselves seeded uncharacteristically low after injury closed down their 2017 seasons at Wimbledon.
Stan Wawrinka, following knee surgery, is seeded No9, Novak Djokovic No14. They have both, however, been drawn in Federer’s half, along with several other threats for the title, including No7 David Goffin and this week’s No 12, Juan Martin del Potro. Each can count big wins over Federer in Majors or the World Tour Finals.
But one of the notable facts about each of the four former Australian champions in action in Melbourne is that all are now in their 30s: Wawrinka is 32, Nadal is 31, Djokovic 30.
So at 36, does Federer really believe he should not be a favourite for the title? After all, two more over-30s have already won two of the five tournaments played this year, Gael Monfils in Doha, Gilles Simon in Pune. Federer himself beat youthful top-tenners Jack Sock and Alexander Zverev to go 4-0 at the Hopman Cup.
Back at that pre-tournament press conference, Federer went on to name two of the more likely favourites—fellow over-30s:
“I feel like maybe someone like a Rafa, with the year that he’s had, and Novak with the six titles he’s had here, even if it’s unknown how he’s feeling, could very well be the favourites too.”
Yet for many, it remains hard to see beyond Federer, the poster-boy for veterans throughout the draw, to win in two weeks’ time.
Consider his carefully-structured 2017, just 12 tournaments, but a 52-5 win-loss run. He won more titles than any of his peers, seven, having shared the Majors with Nadal, picked up three Masters, and played increasingly attacking tennis with a retooled backhand. He notched up 14-1 over top-10 opposition for the year, and while he failed to make No1, he did set another record—the oldest end-of-year No2.
And his opener this week against Aljaz Bedene, ranked 51, would set in train another set of record targets. It is almost 15 years since Federer lost in the first round of a Major, and he had never lost his opener in previous 18 in Australia.
That would extend to 19 after a 6-3, 6-4, 6-3 win in an hour and 40 minutes. Not that Bedene did not play his part in a classy contest, with some fine, high-pace rallies and just one break in each set. But Federer’s backhand from last year was quickly into its groove, he charged the net for touch volleys and the odd crowd-pleasing smash, slotted 12 aces, and made 41 winners—from around 170 points.
Should Federer go on to win the title, whether he claims the No1 ranking or not, he would become only the second man, with Ken Rosewall, to win three Majors after turning 35.
He is playing in his 72nd Major, which extends his own Open record, and this first Major match-win of 2018 takes his tally to 326 overall and 88 in Australia—records both.
But there is, of course, a very long way to go, and Federer afterwards hedged again when confronted with the prospect of repeating his run of last year:
“I’m hoping for another good year… but I’m not sure it will go that well because I’m a year older, Rafa’s looking in tip-top shape, and others guys are coming back… Last year was a fairytale and I can’t control everything. I am hoping to stay healthy and give myself chances and hope to play my very best in the big matches.”
He is right to highlight his rivals. Nadal dropped only three games to Victor Estrella Burgos in his opener yesterday. Djokovic, who withdrew from Doha to give his elbow the maximum time to be ready for his campaign for a record seventh Australian title, needed under two hours and lost only seven games to beat Donald Young, and was delighted with his reception and his form:
“It felt great to be back on the court and compete again… It’s been a while.
“There were a lot of good emotions. I was looking forward to getting out on the court and compete. But I did feel nerves and I did feel a bit sceptical whether I’m going to be able to continue playing well as I have the last couple weeks in the practice sessions. But I thought I controlled the nerves well… a very, very solid performance.”
Things get tougher for the Serb: He next plays Doha champion Monfils, who beat qualifier Jaume Munar, in straight set in two hours.
Meanwhile, Wawrinka, who withdrew from all his scheduled matches before Melbourne, edged a four-set win over Ricardas Berankis, 6-4, 6-3, 2-6, 7-6(2). The Lithuanian put up a stern and aggressive effort, and scored 59 winners to Wawrinka’s 36, but the Swiss allayed fans’ concerns with his apparently comfortable movement. He looks fit and ready for the challenges ahead, the next one coming in shape of Tennys Sandgren.
· There are currently 43 over-30s in the top 100
· There are 41 men under 28 and just 20 under-25s in the top 100
· There are only three teenagers in the top 100, plus three 20-year-olds
· Six men are over 35: Federer, Paulo Lorenzi, Julien Benneteau and Feliciano Lopez are all 36; Estrello Burgos is 37; Ivo Karlovic is 38
· Ten of the top 20 are over 30
· Fifteen of Australia’s 32 seeds are over 30
· Of 64 men in Australia’s second round, 28 are over 30
· All four former champions in the men’s draw are over 30, and Federer and Nadal won all four of last year’s Majors
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BIOGRAPHY: Eric Bailly