Australian Open

Two decades since turning pro, Roger Federer is the favourite for Australian Open again

It shouldn’t astonish anyone if the 36-year-old takes his Grand Slam count to 20 in Melbourne.

This was us – well, most of us – predicting Roger Federer’s chances of winning the title ahead of last year’s Australian Open:-

“A 35-year-old dad coming back with an operated knee after an extended break. Tough, very tough.”

“Possible meetings with Berdych, Nishikori, Murray and Stan Wawrinka. Hmm… maybe not.”

“Wait, he’d have to beat Djokovic in the final? We’ll just enjoy him till he lasts. #ThankYouRoger.”

We’d accepted that 2012 Wimbledon would be the Swiss’ last Grand Slam success.

The oddsmakers, too, understandably didn’t favour this ageing, struggling Federer much. Djokovic’s odds were +150. Same as Murray’s. Wawrinka’s was +1100, Federer’s +1600.

Then he did what he did. Against his arch-nemesis, in five dramatic sets, down 1-3 in the last, he resurrected his chances in the final (and in hindsight, his career) to win his 18th Grand Slam. He worked a miracle in Melbourne.

Roger Federer overcame Rafael Nadal 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3 in a roller-coaster of a final in last year's Australian Open.
Roger Federer overcame Rafael Nadal 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3 in a roller-coaster of a final in last year's Australian Open.

“I thought I was gonna maybe win a few rounds. Depending on the draw, maybe get to fourth round or quarters,” he said after his semi-final win last year.

It wasn’t statutory modesty, it was an honest self-assessment by an ageing genius. Federer believed his comeback wouldn’t be an instant success.

Sure, he gave himself the best chance – a Grand Slam was skipped, Masters tournaments were sidestepped, a few thousand ATP points were sacrificed so he could be well-rested, make full recovery and have enough time to train. But training and tournaments, Federer knew, are two different dimensions.

Yes, Murray and Djokovic exited early. But there was Wawrinka and Nadal left to conquer. So, after the final, he cried, as he did in 2009 after losing to Nadal: then, the tears were of grief; now, his eyes welled up because of an accomplishment that’s beyond belief.

The difference 2017 made

At 35, he knew the body can’t keep taking orders, sometimes he’s got to listen to it too. Which is why, despite an unbelievable start to 2017, he handpicked when and where he wanted to play.

At 36, he understands this better. So, the light workout of Hopman Cup this year for him is enough before Australian Open’s heavy drill.

His game, he tweaked. The backhand, once a weakness, was now a weapon. Against opponents running with younger legs, he tried killing points than to fish for mistakes.

Mentally, too, he seems to be at ease like he was last time. Before he, sans hubris, knew he was the best. Now, he’s delighted to know he’s still among the best. Defeats used to taste too bitter, victories are a bonus now.

At this year’s draw ceremony in Melbourne, he recounted the fairy tale saying, “I was probably going to lose at some stage, the quarter-finals or the semi-finals at best because I would just run into a red-hot Djokovic, Murray or Nadal and my game wasn’t going to be good enough. But it was!”

Now, with Andy Murray out, Novak Djokovic coming in with little preparation and Nadal, too, returning from injury Federer will also start the year’s first Slam as the fittest among the ‘Big Four’. It shouldn’t astonish anyone if the Swiss can take his Grand Slam count to 20.

Finely clad in a black tux, Federer welcomed 2018 with a glass of wine in hand and fireworks exploding in the skies of Perth.

Throughout that week, the fireworks from his racquet helped Switzerland lift their third Hopman Cup. In singles and mixed doubles with Belinda Bencic, he was unbeaten in the tournament. Among those he bested in singles was Alexander Zverev, the most promising youngster of last year, and his potential semi-final opponent at the Australian Open opponent.

There are hurdles, including Zverev, that he has to cross to defend his Norman Brookes Challenge Cup.

“I don’t like usually going to draws because they freak me out,” he joked at the draw. “I don’t want to know who I play other than just seeing the sheet at the end and knowing who my first-round opponent is.”

Aljaz Bedene of Slovania, Federer’s first-round opponent, shouldn’t freak him out even if he hasn’t played him before. But many of his potential opponents in the subsequent rounds have bested him before. The list includes: Milos Raonic, Juan Martin del Potro, Novak Djokovic, Zverev, Tomas Berdych among others.

And, if he conquers all these challenges, waiting for him at the other end in the final might be Rafael Nadal, thirsting to avenge last year’s defeat.

But bookmakers and tennis experts back the Swiss to win the title for the sixth time at the Rod Laver arena.

“He could always get picked off early, then it becomes a little more wide open,” said Patrick McEnroe. “But based on what I’ve seen so far, sort of what we saw not just last year but even the tail end of last year, I don’t think there’s anybody else that you could say is a favourite other than Roger at the moment.”

Favourite to win a Grand Slam at 36: Federer himself thinks this is unbelievable. “In my vision, I never had this, that I was going to be playing tennis with four kids,” he said. “That was not part of my dream.”

“My dream was hopefully holding up a trophy of some kind, my home-town tournament in Basel or a Wimbledon trophy or being world No.1 of the ATP.”

But on Monday, 20 years since he turned professional, this father of four will resume his fairytale at Melbourne Park.

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