Alchemist Roger Federer back on top after finding a fresh route to glory
Roger Federer is the world's best player in 2017, but it is no fluke: his 6-4 7-5 win over Stan Wawrinka at Indian Wells marks him out as one of sport's supreme strategists, observes Desmond Kane.
It was a timely backhanded compliment because it is Federer’s reliability on the backhand side that has allowed him to surge back to the forefront of his sport only nine months after all looked lost. A "fairytale" he calls it; Wawrinka prefers to describe it as a vision of utopia:
"He's just amazing. The way he's playing is just so beautiful, it's just so nice. Everything looks perfect. He's moving amazingly well. He has amazing touch. He's doing everything you can do on the tennis court."
A six-month absence from the scene due to surgery for a knee injury - witnessed when he tumbled on Wimbledon's Centre Court in a brutal semi-final loss to Milos Raonic over five sets last July - has seen Federer redouble his efforts to return when most figures with lesser back catalogues are long gone.
Back with a bang
After becoming the second oldest winner of a Grand Slam at the age of 35 behind only Ken Rosewall in Melbourne in January, the Fed Express is well and truly back on the rails. The prospect of the French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open suddenly all offer realistic prospects of a 19th and perhaps even 20th career Grand Slam.
The only thing old about Federer is his swagger. Which has returned to devastating effect so far this year. Little wonder he is smiling.
The stats after his week in the Californian desert are truly remarkable:
- Federer becomes the oldest winner of a Masters Series title usurping 34-year-old Andre Agassi lifting the 2004 Cincinnati Open
- He wins his 90th ATP title as a professional
- He is 1410 points clear of Rafael Nadal at the top of the year’s rankings
- He rises to sixth in the world after starting the year at 17
- He wins Indian Wells for a fifth time, 13 years after his first success at the venue
The secrets of his success
Federer is the supreme athlete, champion, artist and entertainer, but his success has been mapped out with more accuracy than a tourbillon watch constructed in Switzerland. Time out has been time well spent for one of sport's great strategists.
Victories over Steve Johnson, Rafael Nadal, Jack Sock and Wawrinka were built on the backhand strategy. The forehand was potent in the final, but the backhand has been the real game changer for Federer 2.0.
He hit eight winners on the backhand side from the baseline and six volley winners on the backhand side at the net against Wawrinka after setting up the winning point from serve or his approach to net.
Federer outmastered Wawrinka due to his ability to dominate points when the rallies were reduced to only five shots on his side of the net.
At such a stage of his career, it is imperative to be purposeful. In keeping the points shorter, crisper and more menacing with his natural gait lending itself to speedy matches, Federer extends his ability to cope with the physical demands.
Yet he does not have to overexert himself when he is not allowing himself to be ground into the deck. In the key rallies between five to nine points, Federer won 30 to Wawrinka’s 16. It was where the final was won and lost. It is the key to the Federer resurgence.
Roger Federer in action at Indian WellsReuters
In the battles of the sport’s most piercing backhands, Federer was fully functional on both wings, enabling him to dictate the length of points and his preference of how to win them. But there appears to be less room for error on the backhand, which has clearly boosted confidence reserves.
This is a ploy that is working. It brought him a third straight victory over Rafael Nadal in the last 16 for the first time in his career. It brings him serious optimism that he is in control of his own orbit.
Controlled aggression is only useful when you can control it.
Rather than Nadal being able to trouble him with the spinning forehand that loops to shoulder height, as demonstrated over and over at countless French Opens, Federer is suddenly all over the ball quicker than a peckish mamba. The advice from his father Robert is to trust the backhand.
"First thing he told me after the match was 'Great match, great backhands'. He's basically been the first guy to tell me, ‘Hit the backhand, damn it! Don't fall back and slice all the time."
"Obviously you have to take the ball on the rise, and for that you need good footwork, because if the footwork is not right, you won't be on top of the ball..
"But since this year, I feel super comfortable with the racket, and I think I have also gained confidence stepping into the backhand.”
Back on top?
There is already talk of Federer making a tilt at number one. From himself.
"I'd love to be world number one again. But anything else other than world No 1 for me is not interesting. So that's why the rankings is not a priority right now. It's totally about being healthy, enjoying the tournaments I'm playing and trying to win those."
An Indian summer for Roger Federer in Indian Wells? Not quite. Not when we are not yet into spring. Astonishingly, Federer is suddenly writing a fresh chapter long before the final denouement.
He looks like a man who is only getting warmed up.