Long time, no see. Tennis-pulse.com has been inactive for a while and we’re sorry for that. We’ve come to a place where we had to sort out our ideas on how the site is supposed to work and decided to shift our main concentration from consistent match recaps to more in-depth, less frequent but more precise tennis-related articles. This one is pretty much my first try in that department as I’ve written just match summaries and news articles before. Hope you’ll like my piece and let’s all get hyped up for the 2019 Australian Open!!!
The title question of this article has been asked countless times during the past six or seven years. The first time someone doubted the Swiss Maestro has one more slam in him was probably back in 2011/12, when after an unstoppable series of 18 out of 19 Grand Slam finals made between Wimbledon 2005 and Australian Open 2010 (including 12 titles), something stopped working for Roger Federer. He got all the magic back in 2012, capturing a Wimbledon title a little out of nowhere.
The second time this question was the talk of the town was in 2013 when the Swiss had the first major injury of his career – the problems with Federer’s back at the age of 32 supposedly meant that one of greatest tennis players of all time had to finish his career with 17 slams. As we’ve learned since then, you can never write off a true champion. Federer reinvented his game in 2014 with the help of Stefan Edberg, went a little back to the roots and surprised the whole tour and especially his biggest rival Novak Djokovic with a vintage all-court game. He was the only one to be able to challenge the Serb in his prime, but he still got defeated at the hands of Djokovic in the three most important matches of the 2014/15 period (Wimbledon 2014, 15, US Open 2015 finals).
The third time Federer was supposed to be done and dusted was after his fight with a knee injury in 2016. The Swiss lost a dramatic Wimbledon semifinal to Milos Raonic and announced that he’s taking a six-month recovery hiatus and it seemed impossible that he will ever win that 18th Grand Slam.
Yet somehow, he managed to produce the best injury comeback of all time, winning the 2017 Australian Open beating his greatest rival Rafael Nadal, the guy who had his number for so many years and clinching his first Grand Slam trophy in four and a half years. Soon he managed to break his own record twice more (Wimbledon 2017, Australian 2018). He is coming back to Australia as a two-time defending champion but once again not many believe in his chances. Can he do it and what does he have to do in order to win?
I’m from Poland and one of our tennis commentators, Tomasz Tomaszewski, used to say that the first serve is the barometer of Federer’s game. I used to laugh at this sentence but I changed my mind about it in the last few years. It’s not as trivial as you might think. Obviously, when he hits his first serve he wins more points, but I believe the most important part of this sentence lies in just how confidence-driven as a player Federer is. Mentally he’s not the strongest out there, but when he’s sure about his game you can instantly see how great he can play when he’s relaxed. I would, in fact, agree that if the first serve is working well it gives him a huge confidence boost.
The first serve percentage was a little bit too fluctuating for Federer in the latter half of last year.
-56 % against Stan Wawrinka in Cincinnati
-58 % against Benoit Paire at the US Open
-49 % against John Millman at the US Open (10 double faults too, disastrous match)
-51, 58, 60, 61 and 55 % at the Swiss Indoors Basel Open ( which he won but every match was a struggle)
49 percent over the course of four long sets just won’t cut it against pretty much anyone. At 37, Federer has to play offensive oriented tennis and to do it as well as he can he needs a high first serve percentage. Quick holds and great serves under pressure are a thing Roger’s known for and there was just a tad too few of them in the latter half of 2018. I would say Federer has to serve at over 60, maybe 65 percent in the tougher matches in order to give himself a shot at capturing the title. Otherwise, the best returners or excellent grinders like John Millman, coupled with Australian heat, might take advantage of this liability. The good news for Federer is that in his four matches at the Hopman Cup, close to 2 out of 3 of his serves found the court.
Federer’s forehand was probably the biggest disappointment of the latter half of 2018. The most important shot in his game went AWOL around Wimbledon and never really got back. The Swiss mentioned a hand injury once or twice which has been met with a lot of disbelief. However, I think it’s very clear to see that something was indeed hampering Federer’s biggest shot. He lacked the power to hit through the court with it and used a “lasso”ish forehand way too much. It had better days, notably against Nishioka in the first round of the US Open but even in his better matches like versus Djokovic in Paris, he was forced to grind because of how slow his forehand was.
The inability to hit a powerful inside-in or inside-out forehand led to his demise in a lot of matches last year and the Hopman Cup is once again a pretty positive sign as Federer showed some huge, clean forehand winners. The surface in Perth is very similar to the one at the Australian Open (at least in the last two years) and if the Swiss keeps having no trouble with the forehand motion, his biggest shot is going to be very helpful again. Also, I believe the “lasso” forehand is a cool shot and it can be used to create an advantage but Federer has to keep in mind that it also opens up the angle for his opponent (it was exposed numerous times by Anderson in Wimbledon quarterfinals).
Under the coaching of Ivan Ljubicic, the Swiss once again reinvented his game, this time surprising everyone with improving his biggest weakness. The “neo-backhand” brought him eight very important winners against Nadal in the 2017 Australian Open and allowed him to hit through the Spaniard’s lefty topspin rotations. As I’ve said before, with Federer a lot of things depend on confidence. His backhand has brought him a lot of trouble over the course of his entire career and on a bad day, he’s simply afraid to hit it with power. It’s actually been his more consistent shot of the 2018 campaign and after a quick rewatch of some of his 2018 Australian Open victories I think this is the shot that once again made the difference. This is the shot that was missing from Federer’s arsenal in 2014/15 and it’s what gives him a much better shot to defeat Djokovic or Nadal. The backhand was decent enough at the Hopman Cup but I’d say that to win the Australian Open Federer has to surprise everyone with it once more.
There’s no way to talk about a 37-year-old player without mentioning these two things. These are the ones that deteriorate the fastest and are the reason why most tennis players finish their career a lot earlier than Federer. We already now that the guy is super-human, but how long can you cheat time? His matches at the Hopman Cup were very short, so it doesn’t tell us much. However, he was still able to keep a consistent level after three hours of play against Djokovic in Paris last year. My opinion is that Federer’s stamina is heavily underrated, having watched hundreds of his matches I barely recall seeing him tired. Not sure whether it’s due to his aggressive game plan or excellent skills of preserving energy, anyway I presume he’s still going to be able to survive a five-setter although I don’t think it’s possible for him to achieve such a feat as he did two years ago, winning three matches in the deciding set on his way to the title.
He knows how to prepare himself well physically, the last two years proved that the Hopman Cup is a perfect warm-up for him and you can tell that he’s gonna be 100 percent ready when it comes to fitness. The only unknown is whether his 100 percent will be enough? He definitely has to try to finish his early round matches as soon as he can, because in the middle of the Australian summer, a tough grind in the second or third round might mean his chances for the title are over.
The Opposition and the Luck of the Draw
According to the bookies, Federer is the second favorite to win the whole thing. As the third seed, he was randomly drawn into either the first seed Novak Djokovic’s half or into the second seed Rafael Nadal’s half. The Serb captured the last two Grand Slam titles and is clearly the strongest player of the two at the moment. He also won both matches against Federer in 2018 and has the psychological edge. He didn’t look that stellar in his opening tournament of 2019 in Doha, losing sets to Fucsovics and Basilashvili and then bailing out against Bautista Agut, but he’s still the one to beat and the Australian Open is his favorite slam. Federer surely wanted to be drawn into Nadal’s half as right now it’s not even certain whether the Spaniard will play as after an injury-plagued 2018 he featured just in two exhibitions, losing both singles matches (he’s in the Spaniard’s half).
The first four seeds, i.e. Djokovic, Nadal, Federer and Zverev get randomly drawn a 5-8 seed into their quarters. Honestly, none of them looks like a real threat. Anderson and Nishikori are the in-form players, although the Japanese is known for performing a little sub-par against the biggest names and Anderson somehow never went past the fourth round at the Australian Open. Federer got Cilic, who is the last year’s runner-up but his form is a big question mark and he didn’t really look like a Slam contender in the latter half of 2018, while Thiem is simply not that good of a hardcourt player and just lost to Pierre Hugues Herbert in Doha.
The more important benefit of luck will be the fourth round where the 1-4 seeds will meet 13-16. This round might be way tougher than the quarters for the top seeds with youngsters Stefanos Tsitsipas (defeated Djokovic in Toronto, gave Federer a good match at the Hopman Cup) and Daniil Medvedev (just reached Brisbane final, gave the Swiss a scare in Shanghai). There’s also Milos Raonic, a former semi-finalist who played very well in Brisbane losing to Medvedev and last year’s hero Kyle Edmund, who will have a hard time defending his semi-final point as he is currently on a disastrous run of form and has just lost to Yasutaka Uchiyama in Brisbane. The one who drew the Brit (Nadal) has to consider himself extremely lucky as there’s a very slim chance Edmund will even reach the fourth round, while Tsitsipas, Medvedev and Raonic are going to be very tough tests and huge upset alerts. Federer’s projected opponent is the Greek, which is maybe the toughest one of the four.
I would be very surprised if someone unseeded defeated Federer at the Australian Open as I think the standard he showcased at the Hopman Cup was very high and surface suits his game very well. The fourth round is going to be a nightmare and possibly a win for which he would have to dig deep. There’s no doubt that Novak Djokovic is the biggest favorite at the moment, however, in case he slips up, I believe Roger Federer will be there to take that opportunity. Should they meet, I don’t think the Swiss is going to be able to come out for it with a clean head and play as if he had nothing to lose. I believe the Serb will be the tougher one mentally and grind out the win.