At the Hopman Cup just after Christmas, Federer filled every seat of the 6,000-capacity stadium for a practice session. No wonder he radiated enthusiasm throughout that comeback event in Perth, playing an imaginary pair of bongos for the big screen, dad-dancing at the player party, and casually brushing past world No 18 Richard Gasquet for the loss of just five games.
Yet the Hopman Cup, for all its promise, was only an exhibition. Next week, the real business starts. As Federer returns to Rod Laver Arena – the venue for four of his 17 major titles – what can we expect from the sport’s most decorated player? Can he stand up to the challenge of five-set tennis? Or will this be the first warning that his powers are truly on the wane?
No one doubts that Federer has been badly missed. The ATP World Tour Finals felt diminished by his imperious absence, which contributed to some patchy crowds in midweek. When he does finally withdraw to the shores of Lake Geneva, tennis will experience similarly painful contractions to the ones suffered by golf once Tiger Woods lost his edge.
Clearly, he is no longer the unstoppable force he was at his peak. But with his 36th birthday due in the summer, his admirers fear the end of days.
From Monday onwards, the Australian Open will be besieged by anxious well-wishers, hoping for one more glimpse of greatness. In the circumstances, the organisers must have been delighted by the draw, which inserted Federer’s name next to three qualifiers. It almost guaranteed a whole week of Fed-frenzy, because the first time he can play a top-100 opponent will be in Friday’s third round.
Should Federer reach that far, however, the degree of difficulty is likely to climb as steeply and suddenly as the slopes of Mount Buller – the Melburnians’ local ski resort. In all probability, he will go from fine-tuning his game against a couple of wannabes to playing Tomas Berdych, the 10th seed and former Wimbledon finalist. And were he to pass that test against the statuesque Berdych, who backs himself to hit through sheet metal, he would most likely move on to Kei Nishikori, the contrastingly lithe and light-footed Japanese.
These are the kind of things that happen when you are seeded 17th. It could have been even worse: Federer could have drawn his old nemesis, Rafael Nadal, in the third round. But there will still be significant pressure on his shoulders. In the old days, when he was racking up major titles like some people collect comics, the 720 points he took from last year’s Australian Open would have been small change. Now, those points represent just over a third of his total.
The penalties for a slip-up, then, are enormous. Let’s say Federer were to overcome both Berdych and Nishikori, then fall in the quarter-finals, where his most likely opponent would be Andy Murray. That would be a highly creditable effort after such a long lay-off. But he would still drop 360 points and fall back into the mid-twenties on the rankings table. For his next tournament – which will probably come in Dubai late next month – he could even be unseeded, raising the possibility that he might face Murray in the first round.
Such are the potential pitfalls when you have been out of the game for half a season. Yet Federer has an asset in the unique cachet he holds right across the game – from spectators to players to officials. In all probability, the majority of his appearances on Rod Laver Arena will come in night sessions, which will save him from the intense heat forecast for the early part of next week.
It might seem strange that, when tournament director Craig Tiley works out the scheduling, the 17th seed will count as his biggest drawcard. But then charisma is only loosely correlated with recent results. Novak Djokovic and Murray stand unchallenged as the leading contenders for the title, but not as first-choice TV properties. Local interest dictates that Nick Kyrgios and Bernard Tomic are both easier to sell. And the old ones – in the familiar cases of Federer and Nadal – are still the good ones as far as the networks are concerned.
Both these tennis giants called time early in their 2016 seasons, having discovered that their bodies do not overcome trauma as quickly as they used to. But their situations are hard to compare, not only because Nadal missed six weeks rather than six months, but also because he is so experienced at the art of the comeback. The man has contended with more faulty joints than an emergency plumber.
“Rafa’s always been unbelievable at comebacks,” Federer told the New York Times last month. “He’s one of the guys who’s done it the best and the most almost. Every time he came back, he was always in the mix again to win big tournaments and be really, really difficult to beat, even on his weaker surfaces. So I think maybe on this occasion, he’s going to lead the way for me, to show how it’s done.”
Federer can be confident that he will not face Nadal over the next fortnight. Both men would have to reach the final, and that would be miraculous. The balance of power has shifted too far towards the younger members of the ‘Big Four’. Even so, neither of the founding fathers is ready to move aside completely.
Federer expressed his position in that same New York Times article, when he breezily told interviewer Chris Clarey that retirement “can totally wait”.
Nadal made the same point – in fewer words – when he asked his old friend Carlos Moyá to supplement his coaching team. That ended any idea that Nadal’s appetite might be waning, and heightened the sense of unpredictability heading into the new season. Whatever 2017 brings, we should enjoy tennis’s Fab Four while we can.