Sunday, January 22, 2017

Roger Federer is happy being the underdog at Aussie Open

Meticulous with his trade, articulate with his words; in a game of numbers, Roger Federer is selective in filtering which figures carry much – if any – bearing.

And he has to be. The Swiss great, making his return to the tour after a six-month layoff to heal his weary body, is a player whose name and legacy is awash with more numbers than any other.

Take the $67.8 million he netted last year in winnings and endorsements, despite missing more than half the season through injury. And the No.1 spot he occupies as the world’s most marketable sportsperson in 2016.

Take the 6000-strong throng of fans in Perth, which flocked just to watch a Hopman Cup practice session leading in to AO 2017.

While only reinforcing his influence on the sport, they are figures which matter little to the 35-year-old as he looks to build on a tally of a record 17 Grand Slam singles titles.

His seeding of No.17 – while afforded the caution it deserved had it pitted him against the likes of top seed Andy Murray or six-time champion Novak Djokovic as early as the third round – likewise carried scant weight.

It is the first time since Roland Garros 2001 he enters without a top-16 seeding next to his name at a major. But after a knee injury ended his streak of 65 straight appearances in Slams ahead of his Paris campaign last year – and subsequently ruled him out for the second half of the season – Federer sees it as a number which means nothing once the first ball is hit.

It is a long time since he has carried such an underdog status.

“Yeah, why not for a change? I mean, I prefer to be the favourite. Underdog is OK,” Federer said.

“As long as I'm healthy and I feel like I can go four, five sets, I can go many matches in a row, then I think it's going to be fun. If I feel like I'm in pain in the matches, then obviously it's no fun. Then it doesn't matter what your seeding or ranking is, it's always the same.

“But, no, it's a great draw because I'm in the draw. So for me I'm super pleased that I made it here, that I have an opportunity to win matches. How many remains to be seen. I'm cautious myself. So, yeah, clearly an underdog this time around.”

The Swiss will open against a qualifier at Rod Laver Arena on Monday night with another qualifier guaranteed of standing across the net from him in the second round, should he win.

From there, the task of claiming an unexpected fifth Australian Open crown, becomes profoundly more difficult. Should seedings carry true to form, he would have to upset four top-10 opponents in succession to do so.

In the third round, it would be 10th seed Tomas Berdych, followed by fifth seed Kei Nishikori, top seed Murray, fourth seed Stan Wawrinka and finally, second seed and six-time champion Djokovic.

“I went through a year where I didn't play any five-setters, an entire year. You could think that's a good thing for longevity, but it's not a good thing because you don't know how it feels to play a five-setter anymore,” Federer said when putting his draw in perspective.

“There's always new faces coming up every season. The guys, a lot of them, who played futures or challengers a year ago may be 300, next thing you know they're in the top 100.”

They’re numbers again that will vanish the moment he is welcomed back on to RLA. It is the longest stint on the sidelines he has endured.

“You miss the feeling of winning, walking onto a stadium, seeing the guys,” he said. “It's like an extended family to some extent anyway.

“You see faces you haven't seen in a while. It's just nice to see everybody again.”

It is a welcoming reception Federer will find difficult to quantify.

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