Federer has rest playing catch-up

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Unassuming chap that he is, Roger Federer has let on that he frequently amazes himself with the quality of his tennis. However that level is arrived at, his rivals sincerely wish he would desist, or at least ease off a little and offer them hope.

Unassuming chap that he is, Roger Federer has let on that he frequently amazes himself with the quality of his tennis. However that level is arrived at, his rivals sincerely wish he would desist, or at least ease off a little and offer them hope.

Tomorrow, Federer embarks on the defence of his Australian Open crown, flying as high as is feasible without purchasing an aeroplane ticket. He lost just six of his 80 matches in 2004, lifted 10 titles, including three of the four Grand Slams. He captured his first tournament of the new season in Doha last weekend to extend his match-winning streak to 21, and beat Andy Roddick yesterday in the final of the Kooyong Exhibition tournament.

Rod Laver, also a modest fellow, thinks Federer may end up a greater player than he was. Andre Agassi says Pete Sampras is the only one in recent times who can be compared with the Swiss, and Roger himself acknowledges "it's going to need a good player'' to take the Australian away from him.

Last year there were predictions, including from this corner, that Federer would become only the third man, after Don Budge and Laver (twice), to win all four Grand Slams in a calendar year.

Gustavo Kuerten applied the match to those forecasts by eliminating Federer in the third round of the French Open, and Roland Garros remains the place where his ambitions may again be undermined.

First, however, to emulate Budge and Laver, it will be necessary to win in Australia, and to strengthen his already solid prospects Federer has persuaded Tony Roche out of retirement as his coach, albeit on an occasional basis. It is a move which can only be of benefit, not that the opposition is in particular need of further demoralisation, since the 23-year-old from Basle has won the last 14 finals he has reached and already has 23 tournament victories.

So who will attempt to dislodge Federer from his golden perch? Andy Roddick, seeded to face him in the final, appears, for the moment, at least, to have accepted he is the world's next-best player and remains, furthermore, in a state of some shock following his walloping by Spain's 18-year-old Rafael Nadal in the Davis Cup final last month.

Federer's prospective semi-final opponent, Marat Safin, is always capable of conjuring the required level of genius, providing he has remembered to engage his brain in first gear. Last year he gave Federer a decent match in the Austral-ian final, despite losing in straight sets. Should Safin stumble, Carlos Moya would be prepared to give it a go, since he has declared this the year he plans to improve on the one Grand Slam he holds (French Open 1998) and to this end, he has, like Tim Henman, withdrawn from his country's Davis Cup team.

The one opponent aching to test himself against Federer will be Lleyton Hewitt, undeterred by the one-sidedness of his defeat in the US Open final in September. In that tournament, Federer outlasted Agassi in a classic five-set quarter-final before defeating Henman and then Hewitt.

Agassi, who lost to Henman in Kooyong yesterday, is again drawn to be Federer's quarter-final opponent but is complaining of more trouble from a long-standing hip problem, something which could draw the curtains on his tilt at a fifth Australian Open crown even before he gets to Federer.

Henman, the seventh seed, is, at 30, at least six years older than any of the other serious title chasers with the exception of the incredible 34-year-old Agassi, and with his ongoing back pains will be grateful for a friendly draw, at least until he runs into Roddick in the last eight.

Getting that far would be a record, since he has yet to progress beyond the fourth round in Australia. Of late, however, he has shown he can do well at Grand Slams other than Wimbledon, even if not quite as well as you-know-who.

Comments