Monday, January 15, 2018

Roger Federer an underdog in Melbourne no more

Roger Federer was, somewhat unbelievably, an underdog entering the 2017 Australian Open — seeded 17th after missing six months due to injury.

But the Swiss did the seemingly impossible, shocking himself and the world by ousting four Top 10 players in the ATP Rankings to claim his first major trophy since 2012 Wimbledon. He trailed Kei Nishikori 0-5 in the first set of their Round of 16 encounter before winning in five sets. He fell behind 1-3 in the deciding fifth set of the final against Rafael Nadal. No matter, Federer still found a way to triumph despite his last official tournament prior to that coming at 2016 Wimbledon.

“It was more of a 'let's see what happens' kind of tournament,” Federer said on Sunday. It just so happens that it turned into one of the best of his career. “It was the tournament of the year for me, no doubt about it.”

But now, whether Federer agrees with it or not, he is back in his usual favourite status, arriving at Melbourne Park as the second seed for 2018’s first Grand Slam.

“Having no expectations was so nice after all these years always having expectations, like now this year again,” Federer said. “With age, I feel like, you know, I play down my chances just because I don't think a 36-year-old should be a favourite of a tournament, it should not be the case. That's why I see things more relaxed, you know, at a later stage of my career.”

And while Federer may play down his chances, he might be the only one to do so. At 36, the right-hander led the ATP World Tour with seven titles in 2017, including two Grand Slams (Australian Open, Wimbledon) and three ATP World Tour Masters 1000 triumphs (Indian Wells, Miami, Shanghai).

Federer dominated on hard courts especially, winning 91 per cent (40-4) of matches on the surface. There were only two other players who earned 40 or more victories on hard court — David Goffin (43-17, 72 per cent) and Nadal (40-9, 82 per cent).

Thanks to those efforts, the Swiss even has an outside chance at leaving Melbourne with the No. 1 ATP Ranking — he would have to retain the title with Nadal failing to advance to the quarter-finals. It would be the first time he held the top spot since the week of 29 October 2012.

But while there are many things that have been impressive about Federer’s resurgence, one thing stands out — the 36-year-old is having an absolute blast.

“I've always enjoyed it. Do I enjoy it more now? It's unfair if I say yes, because I felt like I loved the time when I was coming up and playing my heroes from TV. I mean, that was extremely cool. It's like a little boy in the candy store back in the day,” Federer said. “When I was No. 1 in the world, winning all these tournaments, that was a lot of fun, too.

“Now it's different. Now I have a big family. I have a lot of friends that travel the world with me. I get to see familiar faces again at all these events because I've made so many friends over the course of my career… It's definitely great times. Is it the best ever? I'm not sure. It's definitely a lot of fun right now.”

And while Federer has fun, nobody in Melbourne will enjoy facing him this fortnight. The 19-time Grand Slam champion begins his quest for major title No. 20 against Aljaz Bedene on Tuesday evening on Rod Laver Arena.

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