Roger Federer’s Familiar But Different Road

by Matt Zemek

There is no guarantee that tennis will continue to put specific obstacles in players’ paths again and again over the years. Somehow, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have never met at the U.S. Open. Someway, Nadal and Andy Murray have never met in a major final. Over 10 months, yes, players in the top tier of the sport are highly likely to meet, but the simple reality of a reunion often matters a lot less than the circumstances in which that reunion occurs.

There is no guarantee that tennis will continue to put specific obstacles in players’ paths again and again over the years. Somehow, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have never met at the U.S. Open. Someway, Nadal and Andy Murray have never met in a major final. Over 10 months, yes, players in the top tier of the sport are highly likely to meet, but the simple reality of a reunion often matters a lot less than the circumstances in which that reunion occurs.

For context, consider the two major tournaments Federer won in 2017.

In Australia, he faced Tomas Berdych, but he did so in the third round, after a six-month injury-based layoff. The tennis community didn’t know what to expect, but Federer turned physical freshness into a supreme attribute, playing with lethal precision in a vintage and mercifully quick beatdown. The circumstances didn’t guarantee the result, but Federer steered the circumstances in his favor. Being able to win so quickly against Berdych and later Mischa Zverev in the quarterfinals gave Federer enough saved fuel for subsequent five-setters in the fourth round and the semifinals against Kei Nishikori and Stan Wawrinka. When Federer reached the final, his slot in the Thursday semifinal — as opposed to the Friday semifinal — gave him an extra day of rest relative to Nadal, and he made use of those 24 extra hours by finding a finishing kick in set five against his most storied rival.

At Wimbledon, Federer faced the possibility of going through Novak Djokovic in the semifinals with questions swirling about the Serbian’s health, but that possibility was dashed in short order. Federer ran into Berdych and received a stiff test. Federer and Berdych played two sets on very even terms, and only Federer’s tiebreak prowess — he won all five tiebreakers he played during that Wimbledon fortnight — ensured safe passage to the final, which he won in anticlimactic fashion against an injured Marin Cilic.

Federer’s 2018 Australian Open owns components of both the 2017 Australian and 2017 Wimbledon, but it is its own challenge. Federer had little time to settle into the 2017 Australian, given the Murderer’s Row of opponents he had to face, beginning in the third round. Federer was snapped into a state of alertness which has not existed this year in Melbourne Park. The caliber of opposition hasn’t been nearly as formidable through four rounds. Federer saved multiple gears of effort in his Monday win over Marton Fucsovics, playing sets closer than he should have but nevertheless getting off the court in straights. Federer knows he is in conservation mode, but he also knows that the preliminaries are over in Australia. He must expect full mortal combat in his next three matches.

It should be easy for Federer to respect the test Berdych brings to the table in the quarterfinals. Berdych not only pushed Federer at Wimbledon, but had match point against him in the Miami quarterfinals before Federer wiggled free and escaped. Though Federer has gradually taken hold of a head-to-head series which was once far more even, Berdych has demonstrated this week that his fitness and clarity have improved. If Berdych came within a whisker of winning sets (and the Miami match) against Federer in 2017 in less-than-supreme condition, the idea of a fitter Czech — a much sharper version of the tired figure who labored through the Laver Cup in Prague last September — should give Federer ample reason for concern in Wednesday’s quarterfinals.

The opponent will simultaneously be familiar and yet placed in a different competitive context.

Like 2017 Wimbledon, Federer will not face Djokovic in the semifinals, even though the two were placed in the same half of the draw and generated predictable pre-tournament buzz as a result. If Federer’s most famous major title is last year’s Australian Open, his second most famous title is Roland Garros in 2009. What made that title special and impressive as an achievement is that once Nadal lost to Robin Soderling, Federer had to carry an even greater weight of pressure and expectation. Djokovic being out of this Australian Open will put more of a burden on the Swiss to get to the final.

Speaking of that final: Last but not least, Federer can see Nadal in the distance, looming as a possible opponent in the ultimate showdown next Sunday. However, this year, Nadal — not Federer — will have the Thursday semifinal slot in Australia and therefore an extra day of rest before the final. Federer might wind up at the end of the road next Sunday night in Rod Laver Arena, but the backdrop to that match — if both players are good and lucky enough to get there — will flip-flop the 2017 structure.

Roger Federer has completed the warm-up portion of his 2018 Australian Open. Next, he will engage in the delicate dance of playing old foes under new circumstances, hoping that a calm and knowing wisdom will reduce the importance of the peripheral details and enable the Swiss to focus on the only thing that matters: the next ball he hits.

The ball is in Roger Federer’s court this week in Melbourne. We will see how he responds to it against highly formidable opposition… but with Novak Djokovic once again out of the way.

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