Australian Open Preview Roger Federer on Course for Date with Slam No. 20

Australian Open Preview

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After having spent four and a half years looking for slam number 18 and finally finding it in Melbourne last season, Roger Federer is, after just a year, looking on course for a date with number 20.ย 

We have seen more of Federer than we have seen of a lot of the potential big name Australian Open 2018 title favorites, and, if the defending champion’s four singles win at the Hopman Cup (defeated Sascha Zverev, Karen Khachanov, Jack Sock, and Yuichi Sugita, all of whom had their best seasons in 2017) are anything to go by, he looks to be the healthiest and most in-form of his fellow Big Fivers and other established title contenders in action.

This year’s Australian Open field is one beset by injuries and unproven quantities at slam level and with Federer seemingly healthy and with his grand slam pedigree the highest quality in history, he looks on course to win slam No. 20 in three Sunday’s time.

The Swiss’ serve and net game looked in especially good shape in Perth and he should iron out the kinks in his baseline game in the first few rounds in Melbourne as he faces Aljaz Bedene in round 1, and either Korean wild card Soonwoo Kwon or German world no. 53 Jan-Lennard Struff in round 2.

The Swiss’ draw pits him against Richard Gasquet (29) in the third round (Federer leads Gasquet 16-2 and has only lost to him on Clay), Sam Querrey (the Swiss leads 3-0 and has never dropped or set or lost more than four games in a set to the American) or Milos Raonic in the fourth (Federer leads Raonic 10-3 and the Canadian is on the comeback from injury and seeded 22).

In the quarters, the potential match ups get a little more interesting with David Goffin (7) or Juan Martin del Potro (12) potential opponents. Both those men inflicted big defeats on Federer in the final quarter of 2017- del Potro beating him in the US Open quarters, and Goffin beating him in the semis of the ATP finals, del Potro taking advantage of the Swiss’ compromised back and Goffin proving to be too canny for Federer at the very end of a multi slam winning world No.2 ending season.

Federer will still be vulnerable in Melbourne of course being 36 years old and more prone to injury than ever, but the surface is in the Swiss’ favor and should make life easier on his body and mind- Craig Tiley has said it will be as fast as last year –ย ย and the balls will be to his advantage, too, ones that do not fluff up and play into the rackets of the game’s baseliners, and if Federer can impose his attacking game on his Belgian or Argentine rivals, a game which at its best overwhelms both players, Federer should find himself at the business end of the tournament with plenty of energy to spare.

Energy Federer will need, too. In the semis, Federer is seeded to come up against Sascha Zverev (4), but the German has yet to prove himself as a slam threat, and so most people’s eyes are drawn to a potential Novak Djokovic (14) match, one in which the Swiss could, if he is anything less than at his best, be made to run plenty of miles side to side and up and down on his side of the court.

Djokovic comes in looking healthy and motivated and is under relatively little pressure, a Djokovic we have not seen for quite a while. The Serbian, beset in recent times by physical injuries and motivational issues, has not been to a Grand slam final since the US Open 2016- his longest spell without making a slam championship match since winning his second Australian Open, and second slam in total, in Melbourne 2011- and will, for someone who holds the record for the most Norman Brookes challenge cups in history won in the Open era (six), go relatively under the radar.

That low key run through the draw might suit the Serb who went under so much media scrutiny in 2015 and 2016 in his quest to become the first man in the open era since Rod Laver to hold all four Majors, scrutiny that turned him from a sporting star achieving the kind of history beyond even Federer and Nadal to a shadow limping out of the first week of slams or crashing out in the second, his final set lost no less than a set to love.

Melbourne was the setting for the last competitive match between Federer and Djokovic, a four set win for the Serbian two years back, and the Serb leads Federer 3-1 on Rod Laver overall. But, Djokovic, while the more accomplished Australian Open champion, is, right now, still very much on the comeback trail, and if Federer faces him in the semis and is playing well, Djokovic could learn first hand that the resurgent Federer he managed to stop winning slam no. 18 in 2014-2015 has come back in the form of the resurrected Federer on his way to No. 20 in 2018.

This year’s Australian Open final is scheduled, seedings wise, to give us a rematch of last year’s Fedal finale, and it looks like a fairly likely outcome, too, if the Spaniard is healthy enough, that is. Nadal, if his health is in question at all, could not have asked for a nicer draw, but then he could not have worked harder either in 2017 for that privilege.

If Nadal does not make it to his date with Federer, Dimitrov looks the next likely candidate to take his place, and then Marin Cilic, and if none of those three can reach the championship match, we could have another US Open 2017 scenario with a slam final lamb springing into that most brutal of arenas, as Kevin Anderson did in New York, this time the potential offering being Nick Kyrgios, Andrey Rublev, or Jack Sock.

Either way, whether the Swiss faces a more established slam pedigree or a fresh face on final’s day, Federer is the favorite to take his seat atย  the Champion’s table.

Nadal has eaten there before in Melbourne, and with great, even brutal, gusto, managing to win the Australian Open in 2009 with that heartbreaking win over Federer. But, in their recent rivalry, Federer has gained the upper hand over Nadal, winning five matches in a row, most recently in the Shanghai final, a record for the Swiss in their head to head, and with those limps on crutches we used to see from Federer in big matches versus Nadal now tossed into the doubles alley and replaced with a sure footed swagger inside the court and across his favorite surfaces, Federer would be tipped to execute his own strengths and expose Nadal’s few, but in these high stakes matches too few too many, limitations on the Rod Laver Arena.

As for Dimitrov, the Bulgarian may have broken out at the ATP Finals, but his first slam final versus Federer may be one step too soon just yet, and regarding Cilic, the Croat would have a chance in the final if he clicked into that US Open 2014 game once again, but is a little too volatile to back as a winner with any confidence.

If we do get a slam debutante of the likes of Kyrgios or Rublev, players who have shown plenty of potential having both reached slam quarters before turning 20, then Federer, who has said the difference between himself and those who have not won slams is that he knows what it takes, would be only too willing to show the Next Gen just exactly what “what it takes” is.

What it takes is a game which, when executed well, is too good on a medium fast surface for any other player out there. It’s a talent which has rendered, over a 14 year span of winning major titles, both inexperience and age irrelevant. It’s, the final and most vital part, an absolute passion for the game, one which Kyrgios and Rublev also have deep down within them, but which they let spill from their guts and then slip on, falling face down onto the court, as Federer himself once did.

A passion Federer tamed long ago and now pours, for all to see, in vessels shaped like trophies. A passion that spills over into never-ending wells and looks set, for Federer, aged 36, No.2 in the world, and the best looking title contender in the field, to run, at the very least, 20 slams deep.

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Christian Deverille

Christian Deverille is a tennis writer with a diploma in Freelance Sports Writing from the London School of Journalism. He loves all things tennis, most of all the Federer and del Potro forehands.

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