At the start of the year, who would have thought that Roger Federer would be entering SW19 with a legit chance of going past Pete Sampras and adding to his tally of slams? Being an ardent fan for all these years and seeing him do magical things I’ve learnt never to doubt him but I was unsure how he would fare after taking 6 months off, but after 6 months which saw him lift his 18th at Melbourne, The Sunshine Double and a 9th win at Halle, suddenly all seems rosy for the Swiss Maestro. He took a good 2 months off, deciding to skip the clay court season to prolong his career. The struggles of Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic (the latter especially going through a torrid season) have also played their part. His great rival and nemesis Rafa Nadal has also hit the top of his game with three La Decima this year including a historic one at Roland Garros and it seems like we’ve turned back the clock to 2007, as both men are at the top of the race to London and for the top spot.
An improved backhand: Key to recent success
The biggest plus for Federer has been his improved backhand which he’s hitting harder than ever (thanks to the weight training sessions in LA last fall), while also hitting over most of the returns (Ljubicic effect surely). He’s also hitting his inside out forehand extremely well and highly aggressive court positions, sometimes even 46% inside the baseline while returning the serve. The highlight for him has been three wins over Nadal, especially digging deep to win the 5th set in Australia, and as he says so often that has freed him mentally and he is playing freely, swinging from the hip every match. The results are clear as he’s 24-2 this year with 4 titles to his credit.
For many he is the favourite for Wimbledon, some have even gone on to say it’s him against the rest of the field, or the one player(s) who can stop him are so and so. Is he the favourite? Yes, on current form and after that masterclass he delivered at the expense of the youngster Sascha Zverev, you’d be foolish to think otherwise. Add to that the lack of form for most of the top players (except Nadal). I, however do not think it’s him against the rest, the men’s field is very deep, anyone can surprise anyone on a given day, and we must remember Roger will be 36 in 2 months. As a player grows older it becomes harder to close out sets and matches and we’ve seen that with his only two losses coming to Evgeny Donskoy in Dubai (ranked 116th back then), save match point, coming back from 5-3 down in set 3 and 5-2 down in the breaker to win it, and Tommy Haas in Stuttgart (ranked 302), where a similar story unfolded. However, the loss to Haas could be attributed to a bit of ring rust, but again the bottom line was that he failed to close out the match.
There are many contenders to the crown — defending champion and world number 1 Andy Murray, 3-time champion Novak Djokovic and even 2-time champ Rafa Nadal can’t be ruled out despite his recent struggles on grass. Kyrgios is struggling with an injury so one doesn’t know how far he will make it, but still with his game and results this year, he can’t be overlooked.
On the face of it, Roger’s biggest threats will be these three big servers and hitters, they have the power to hurt him if he is off his game. Roger will feel confident about facing Murray given their head to head in majors and the last 5 encounters going his way. The Serb, on the other hand, is very low on confidence and though he has the edge over the Swiss in majors, he has a tall task if they were to face off. The indomitable spirit of Nadal can never be questioned, he will be going into the event with no grass court practice as he was advised to take rest after his historic feat. Rafa has been concerned about playing on as it hurts his knees, one doesn’t know what his motivation or expectations are for this event and week 1 is always the hardest as the grass is sleek and slippery. He will do well to make the second week given the lack of preparation but if he does, anything can happen, he will be more dangerous in week 2 with the baselines wearing out, but with him being seeded 4 and Roger 3, they can only meet in the final, so the possibility of one more fedal match at SW19 is a long way away. Roger will always see Rafa as his biggest threat, despite beating him in the last 4 encounters.
The keys to Federer lifting another Wimbledon will be how well he gets through week 1 without any injury and without having to exert himself too much so that he is primed for the last 3 rounds of the event. He will be happy that he will get an easier draw before the semis but he could face many tricky encounters along the way — guys like Tsonga, Del Potro are the guys who he could have a tricky time against and Tsonga beat him from two sets down back in 2011. Federer will be relying on his slice backhand more these two weeks, given it stays low on the grass (worked superbly on Sunday in Halle), and against the big hitters it would be the way to go, and against the likes of Andy, Nole and Rafa he would probably use it to a lesser extent and come over it more.
It’s likely that he will play the naturally aggressive and freestyle which he harps on about and a fair amount of serve and volley. But most importantly he seems motivated and mentally fresh, he seems like he wants to go out there and capture another one. It’s no secret that he took 2 months off to be fully fit and raring to go (apart from concerns about his knees), and Rafa’s form on clay has given him the extra push to be primed for this moment. He looks forward to this event every year, his favorite, unquestionably and surely he knows this is a golden chance for him to regain the title maybe for one last time. All said and done, it won’t be surprising if he’s lifting the trophy come July 16th.