Sunday 19 November 2017

Federer renaissance showing no signs of slowing down

Roger Federer. Photo: Mark J. Terrill/AP Photo
Roger Federer. Photo: Mark J. Terrill/AP Photo

Simon Briggs

In a sports world filled with scandal, recrimination and bile, Roger Federer's return to the top of men's tennis at the age of 35 represents a refreshingly uplifting tale.

Late on Sunday, Federer blitzed compatriot Stan Wawrinka in the final of Indian Wells - the Masters Series event which constitutes the nearest thing to a fifth Grand Slam.

His statistics are extraordinary: just 80 minutes for the match, zero sets dropped in the tournament, and already six top-10 wins since the start of the season.

Bizarrely, the only loss he has suffered in 14 matches came against the most obscure opponent: world No 116 Evgeny Donskoy. But numbers, as ever, tell only part of the story for Federer.

You have to watch him to appreciate what he is achieving. Because he has returned from his six-month lay-off with an entirely new weapon: a lethal, high-speed backhand that unleashed a barrage of clean winners against Wawrinka on Sunday night.

In backhand-to-backhand exchanges with Wawrinka, whose single-hander had previously been viewed as the best in the world, it was Federer who consistently came off the better.

This is a significant development. Federer's serve, forehand, volley and slice were already world class, but his old top-spin backhand, while elegant, was never going to intimidate elite players.

That has changed dramatically in 2017 and suddenly there are no chinks for the opposition to aim for. Unless he is fractionally off his game - or, perhaps, playing on clay - it is hard to see how he can be beaten.

The sight of anyone playing top-level tennis at 35 - five years older than Andy Roddick was when he retired - is an anomaly in itself. On Sunday night, he became the oldest man to win a Masters event.

Federer had never expected his comeback to go so well. "It's maybe not quite as surprising as (winning) the Australian Open," he told Sky Sports, "but still unbelievably surprising for me that I was able to back it up here in America."

Starting the season at No 16 in the world after a six-month lay-off caused by knee trouble, he had arrived in Melbourne knowing that an early defeat would send him plunging to the mid-30s, outside the seedings for even the biggest events. After Indian Wells, he has climbed to No 6.

"This was not part of the plan, to win Australia and Indian Wells," Federer explained.

"The goal was to be top eight by after Wimbledon, so I'm there much, much faster. I will make the plan for the remainder of the season, especially for the clay, after Miami, and then see also what the goals are because the goals are changing after this dream start."

Inevitably, Federer's millions of fans are already debating how long it will be before he returns to No 1. Admittedly, he has not played either of the men who dominated the 2016 season - Andy Murray and Djokovic - since his comeback began. Murray and Djokovic have withdrawn from Miami this week citing elbow injuries. The next two leading challengers would seem to be Rafael Nadal and Wawrinka, over whom he has already established a hold this season. (©The Daily Telegraph)

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