Interesting events have unfolded in the Men’s Tennis circuit since the conclusion of the Australian Open and the crowning of Switzerland’s third-ever Grand Slam Champion. A minor break followed, before the advent of the sapping hard-court mini-season leading up to the physically torturous clay season.
We all know how it pans out. ATP500 tournaments like Dubai are followed by Masters events (ATP1000) like Indian Wells and Miami. These tournaments are normally dominated by guys like Djokovic and Murray, while Nadal chooses to crank up his claycourt play and often lose early here.
But, there has been an intruder this year. 2014 has thrown up a familiar foe from the past.
Roger Federer is 32 now. After a disastrous 2013 season, he started 2014 promisingly, scalping the considerably younger Andy Murray in the quarters at Melbourne, after losing to Hewitt at Brisbane only a week ago. Federer then went on to prove that no matters how rejuvenated he is, or how well he plays, or even if he turns back the years, he will never be able to beat Rafael Nadal again. His loss to Nadal in the semis confirmed his mental block against the Spaniard. Fortunately for him, his countryman Wawrinka refused to follow the script and defeated Nadal in the final.
Still, Federer will count the Aussie Open as one of his successes. He displayed the will and tenacity of a gritty claycourter playing an unnaturally beautiful game, with a bigger racquet and a massive heart. He came back from situations, and then played at Dubai, where he lost the first set against Djokovic only to hit back and win the next two in the semis. How often has Federer done that? It had been 3 years, to be precise, against a top-10 opponent, a win in this fashion. He did the same against Berdych (who has tortured Federer over the years), winning in 3 sets and beating two top-10 higher ranked opponents in a row to win his first title since Halle (June 2013).
This was, for his legions of fans, a hearty sign of things to come. Federer has flown to Indian Wells and is playing Doubles (with Wawrinka), as well as chugging through his Singles draw. His rival Nadal suffered an early exit, while Djokovic is struggling to win 2 sets in a row. This tournament is Federer’s to lose, and a win here could give him considerable momentum and impetus to take back the top 3 ranking—for one final time before his dip is permanent. He hasn’t won a Masters title since Cincinnati 2012, and he needs this before the one-sided claycourt season begins, where is won’t be a top-3 favorite in any of the events.
A few wins will also take him back into the top 5, much deserved, considering his current fighting form. He has played tacky tennis at times, with the usual shanks and losses of concentration, but he has shown an uncanny ability to fight back when least expected. He was always a good frontrunner, but wouldn’t put up much of a fight if too far behind. His Dubai title was far from convincing, but yet to good to watch because of his newfound mental abilities.
Could this be his final hurrah? If not a Grand Slam title, maybe back-to-back Masters titles? It would be a tragedy if he lost to an unseeded or lower ranked player after all this. He is susceptible to such blips, but he seems to want to grind it out now. He wants to know what it is to feel like a Nadal or a Djokovic, to be able to tough out wins purely on basis of mental strength and belief.
His beautiful game hasn’t deserted him, but he has found a way to strike a balance between desperation and talent.