Federer faces long climb to reach his peak

Former world No 1 blames Olympics for disrupting preparations as last chance looms to turn his season around. By Paul Newman
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The Independent Online

In January we were asking what had become a perennial question: will this be the year Roger Federer finally wins the Grand Slam? Eight months later, after a season that began in ill health and has lurched from one traumatising defeat to another, Federer goes into the last major of 2008 knowing that only victory can salvage something from the wreckage of his season.

The US Open, which begins in New York tomorrow, is the last Grand Slam title Federer holds. While it would be wrong to describe this as a season of failure – he has, after all, reached two Grand Slam finals and won an Olympic gold medal in the doubles – it is a major turnaround considering how the Swiss had dominated tennis in the previous four years.

When glandular fever scuppered Federer's chances at this year's Australian Open it was the first Grand Slam tournament since the 2005 French Open in which he had not reached the final; of the previous 12 he had won 10 and lost two, defeats to Rafael Nadal in the finals of the 2006 and 2007 French Opens the only blemishes on his record. He had been world No 1 for a record 237 weeks in succession until he was replaced by Nadal last Monday.

Grand Slam tournaments provide the bedrock of the top players' ranking points but Federer's performances in the lesser events have consistently undermined his position. He has won only two tournaments all year, minor events in Estoril and Halle.

Since losing to Andy Murray in the first round in Dubai in February, when he was still well below his best physically, the year has been a catalogue of defeats to the sort of players Federer had routinely beaten in the past: Mardy Fish (in Indian Wells), Andy Roddick (Miami), Radek Stepanek (Rome), Gilles Simon (Toronto), Ivo Karlovic (Cincinnati) and James Blake (Beijing). He has lost his aura of invincibility and with so many accomplished players around – the gap between Nos 1 and 50 is far smaller in the men's game than the women's – everyone now reckons they have a chance.

Federer acknowledges he has not been at his best but thinks that reports of the death of his game have been greatly exaggerated. "Today I can't hide under the radar any more," he said. "When the No 1 in the world loses it's always in the headlines. That's maybe why it looks a little more extreme."

He believes he has not been helped by the disruptions caused by both his illness and the reorganisation of the calendar to accommodate the Olympics. "I haven't had any time whatsoever to practise since February," he said. "I could blame myself for not taking time off, maybe skipping Toronto or Cincinnati, but that was the preparation I needed to get ready to play on hard courts at the Olympic Games.

"I base my schedule around trying to have the best preparation for the Grand Slams because that's where I really want to do best. This year the schedule has been difficult for everybody. I'm not criticising. It's just a fact.

"With the Olympic Games, everything shifted. It made it really hard for us to have proper preparation. That's maybe one of the reasons some players play better, some players play worse. Next year I think you'll be able to control your schedule much more, which is going to be key.

"I have to look forward. I look forward to the US Open. I still have this and then the Masters Cup in Shanghai to do well in and to try to save my season."

A major consolation is that Federer has the greatest respect for the man who has replaced him at the top of the rankings. "Rafa played great to get there," he said. "When I got to No 1, I always hoped that the only way anyone would replace me would be by playing an incredible tennis schedule, winning the biggest tournaments and dominating the game. I didn't want it to happen through me playing badly and someone else just picking it up. Rafa totally deserves it."

Nadal is the No 1 seed in New York, but hard courts are not his best surface and he has never gone beyond the last eight there. In previous seasons his form has dropped at this time, but there has been no sign of that lately. Since early May he has had an extraordinary run, winning at Hamburg, the French Open, Queen's, Wimbledon, Toronto and Beijing. His only defeat was to Novak Djokovic in the semi-finals in Cincinnati. With comparatively few rankings to defend in the coming months, the Spaniard has a great chance to consolidate his position.

Last year's US Open brought Djokovic his first appearance in a Grand Slam final and his summer form suggests he will be right in the mix. The same can be said of Murray. While his early exit from the Olympics was a disappointment, it gave him a chance to regroup after a busy summer.

The US Open is the Scot's favourite tournament and his draw looks reasonable: he is seeded to meet David Ferrer in the quarter-finals, the winner possibly facing Nadal in the semis. The form player is Juan Martin del Potro, with 19 wins and four titles in a row. The 19-year-old Argentinian is in Murray's quarter of the draw.

The women's draw looks wide open. Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic are the top two seeds, but both have played moderately since the French Open. Maria Sharapova is absent, nursing a shoulder injury, but two other Russians, Elena Dementieva and Dinara Safina, have been playing consistently well and should go well. Serena Williams will also fancy her chances.

The most pleasing return to form is that of Amélie Mauresmo. She appeared to be on a downward spiral earlier this year, but recent performances suggest she could be a threat again. After a tricky opener against Nathalie Dechy she is seeded to face Ivanovic, who has been struggling with an injured thumb.