It’s been a long time since we’ve seen Roger Federer on-court in an ATP World Tour match. July 8th, 2016 at the All-England Club. It was a five set loss to Milos Raonic that saw Raonic march on to his first-ever Grand Slam final, while Federer fell short of making a 28th Grand Slam final. Following Wimbledon, Federer made the announcement that he would skip the remainder of the season in order to properly rehab his surgically repaired knee with eyes towards 2017.
His 21-7 mark in 2016 wasn’t terrible considering the knee injury suffered early in the season that caused him to miss several months. He played in just two Grand Slams, making the semifinals still at both the Australian Open and Wimbledon. The injury-shortened season ensured that Fed would go without at least one title for the first time since 2001. Turn the calendar now and we’re only about three weeks away from the New Year. The only blip on the Federer News radar was an announcement this week that Federer would indeed participate in the 2017 Australian Open.
Good news right? Of course. Federer was actually set to step back on the court this past week in India for the International Premier Tennis League, but a cash crunch left the IPTL unable to afford certain luxuries such as Federer. We’ll get a true look at Federer’s health and fitness in Perth when the Swiss lands to lead the Swiss squad along with Belinda Bencic for the 2017 Hopman Cup which starts early in January. The question remains without seeing him before then, what can we expect from the now 35-year-old in 2017?
Draw Challenges Early
Due to his absence from the tour for nearly half the season, Federer’s ranking has plummeted down to its current spot at 16th. The positive for Federer are that it is less than 1,000 points to get back into the top ten. The negative though will be some tougher draws, at least early in 2017. That means he’ll see tougher players, players he maybe wouldn’t see until a Grand Slam quarterfinal now in his quarter perhaps as early as the third round. It will be a challenge, but one that Federer likely will relish. There is no doubt that his competitive juices are still flowing and I think the upheaval to end the season with Novak Djokovic looking anything but invincible will have Federer dreaming of one last piece of Grand Slam hardware – and it may not just be a pipe dream depending on Djokovic’s mindset in 2017.
The draw in Melbourne will be one of the more interesting in a while with both Federer and Rafael Nadal further down the rankings than they have been for the better part of a decade. Federer has been remarkably consistent at the Aussie Open, making it to the semifinals or better in 12 of the last 13 years. Only 2015’s third round shocking loss to Andreas Seppi prevented Federer from perhaps making that 13 years straight in the semifinals. It’s obviously a tournament he prepares well for and then is able to execute well at during the course of his career.
This is nothing new when we’re talking about Federer. We’ve seemingly been talking about his age and “how can he keep this level of results going” for at least three years. Yes. Federer has not won a Grand Slam since 2012 at the age of 31. Yet, he’s made the semifinals or better in 12 of the 19 slams he has played since turning 30. That would be a huge number for a player in their 20s and we’re talking about a guy supposedly in the twilight of his career, still making noise at the tail end of slams.
The biggest challenge that age will put forth on Federer is obviously the seasonal wear and tear. Fortunately, Federer is one of the best schedulers in the sport. He’s never shied away from skipping tournaments and playing a lighter schedule to preserve his fitness and body for the biggest tournaments. Under the guide of coaches Severin Luthi and Ivan Ljubicic, I would expect more of the same in 2017. Federer was already rarely playing any 250-level events in the past few years and that could be down to one or none in 2017. Stuttgart on grass theoretically is the only one he might deem important enough to play as prep for Wimbledon.
The plus for Federer on the schedule front will be that keeping the schedule “rest” friendly should be relatively easy. He won’t have many points to defend outside of his results from the Australian Open and Wimbledon, so he can be even more selective in 2017. As such, I’d expect him to do an either/or with the Indian Wells-Miami Masters double in March and likely only play the Masters events in both the Spring and Summer on clay and hard courts. He could look to avoid more back-to-back situations like the Madrid-Rome swing on clay. It will all probably depend on just how he feels after playing the first few months.
Finishing Grand Slams
As pointed out, despite his advancing age, Federer has still been right there in the final four mix at a ton of Grand Slams the past four to five years. His main issue has been getting past the top dog, mainly Novak Djokovic. There have been odd characters to oust Federer in slams as his consistency fluctuates like Tommy Robredo at the 2013 U.S. Open in the fourth round, Ernests Gulbis in the fourth round of the 2014 French Open and of course Seppi at the 2015 Australian Open. Still, it’s been Djokovic who has kept Federer from advancing further or winning a title in four of the last eight Grand Slams he has played.
The bad news for Federer is that his lowered ranking guarantees that outside of an upset, he’ll have to get past a top four seed at the quarterfinal stage barring some upsets. Instead of seeing Djokovic in the semifinals, he may now see him in the quarterfinals. It just adds to the degree of difficulty in Federer’s search for Grand Slam title #18.
Publicly, you know Federer will talk about winning titles and competing for another Grand Slam title above most else. Privately, I think the expectations will be a shade lower than that early on in the season. I think if Federer equals his semifinal run at last year’s Australian Open, it would be a tremendous accomplishment to open the new season. Realistically, a quarterfinal in Melbourne would be a better goal for me given that his draw could include some trickier early matches.
The early goals for Federer should be staying healthy and pain free through the first month of the season. If he flops in Melbourne, panic alarms shouldn’t sound due to the long layoff. However, if Federer makes a run, the panic alarms might go off for the rest of the ATP World Tour. What might be the biggest hurdle for Federer is the mental aspect of a slow start, whether it’s his body not reacting like he wants it or the results not coming despite him being healthy. He’s got to know that is a possibility, so being prepared for adversity is key.
As the season progresses, the expectations should heighten for Federer and I think most would believe that Wimbledon is the key focus for the season. Federer has still shown good on hard courts and reasonable on clay in the past few years, but grass is where he know his quick and aggressive game plan is suited best at this stage. If he’s going to add #18 to the trophy case, Wimbledon is always going to be the odds-on favorite as the site where he could do it.
One thing Federer will always have going for him is a rabid fan base. Fed fans are loyal and even those who aren’t necessarily his most ardent supporters likely will flock to him more so in 2017. The sport has missed him regardless of whether he wins or loses. Now, it awaits his return and to see whether the Swiss Maestro has any magic left in his body. I think there will still be pressure on Federer, both self imposed and fan imposed, to compete for titles. Although age has slowed him some, it has not slowed him enough to where he was still not a legit force.
Disappointment would be heavy for most if Federer comes back and is either re-injured or has clearly lost a step after missing so many months – be it mentally or physically. The intriguing aspect of his comeback is whether he’ll pick right up where he left off or perhaps go Juan Martin Del Potro on us and gradually work himself back into the conversation. A DelPo-esque resurgence over the course of the season would require patience that I’m not sure Federer or his fans will have in abundance. That however worked out great for Del Potro and if Federer is playing his best tennis by the summer, then it could work out to his advantage in London or New York.
Just be prepared for some bumps in the road.