Online Sport Editor Matt Bugler asks if the resurgence of form in the great man will see him add to his Grand Slam collection:
In the Indian Wells trophy ceremony on Sunday night, Roger Federer had never looked so pleased after finishing runner-up. With a massive beam on his face he declared “I’m happy and playing great tennis at the moment,” knowing that he had been only a matter of points away from winning the event.
For Novak Djokovic, the championship was much needed after an insipid start to the season under the duel coaching of newly-installed Boris Becker and long-term full time coach Marian Vajda. The latter has chosen to reduce his commitments to spend more time with his family, but there is a sense that Djokovic feels more comfortable with him than under Becker’s methods.
It seemed a strange move to appoint the German in the winter, after a stunning end to last season, where Djokovic won every match he played after the US Open, including four trophies and the Davis Cup. Becker has since added little to the Serb’s game, with many pointing out the irony of Djokovic losing the last point of his Australian Open semi-final against Stanislas Wawrinka on a straightforward serve and volley, such was the success of Becker’s net play.
His run in Indian Wells was far from routine, and he was taken to a third set in four of his six matches, most surprisingly against the qualifier Alejandro Gonzalez in the third round. Indeed, for the first set against Federer, Djokovic looked flustered and off-balance, hitting two double faults to be broken in his opening service game.
It was ultimately reassuring to see Djokovic back to his best in the next two sets, as he turned into human wall mode at the back of the court against Federer’s relentless aggression. The match turned into one of the best Masters finals in recent years, with two opposite styles facing off in an intriguing tactical battle.
In the first set, Federer repeatedly chipped and charged off the Djokovic second serve, surprising him with catlike alertness at the net. Federer’s volleys remain arguably the best in the men’s game, and his forehand can still drive through the ball with unparalleled amounts of racket head acceleration.
Since turning 32, Federer is playing far better than he did the previous 12 months. After a limp straight sets exit to Tommy Robredo at the US Open in August, he began to enjoy his tennis once again, beating Juan Martin Del Potro twice indoors having not beaten a single top ten player since January.
Federer’s very place in the top ten had looked doubtful at times last year as he repeatedly struggled against the elite, but after Indian Wells he has climbed from a lowly eighth place to number five, with a place in the top three well within reach considering the lack of points he has to defend from last season. Federer has been arguably the most consistent player this season, and he seems to have overtaken the struggling Andy Murray and levelled himself with Djokovic, having beaten him in Dubai.
Surprise defeats at Indian Wells for Wawrinka and Rafael Nadal to Kevin Anderson and Alexandr Dolgopolov respectively have provided further evidence that this year the bridge between the top men and the rest of the field has been shortened.The likes of Grigor Dimitrov and Milos Raonic are beginning their assault on the top ten, while players such as Murray and Del Potro may be anxiously looking over their shoulder as the summer season approaches.
It is thus intriguing that Federer is the one to have emerged from this battleground unscathed. Sporting a new racket eight square inches larger than his previous one, he is hitting fewer shanks and can rally more confidently from his backhand side.
He is also playing without pain, having suffered back problems for much of last season, and he looks physically stronger than most 25 year olds on the tour. Although Federer’s offensive mentality means he generally aims to keep the points short, this new racket and improved fitness allows him to endure longer rallies from the baseline than he did last season.
In his four events this season, Federer has won one, reached the final twice and lost in the semi-finals of the Australian Open. He will enter the Miami Masters as one of the favourites in the last hard court event before August, although the speed of court is not particularly fast.
As the clay season looms Federer may struggle to challenge the relentless consistency of Djokovic and Nadal, but in Wimbledon and the US Open he has a real chance of winning an 18th Grand Slam. His strong start to the season has mirrored that of 2012, when he backed up a strong start to the year including Masters titles in Indian Wells and Madrid to defeat Andy Murray in the Wimbledon final.
Physicality looks no more of an issue now than it did two years ago, and a fast grass court will favour him against the other contenders. An 18th Slam would certainly banish any counter-claims to his status of greatest player of all time.bookmark me