If you’ve listened to Roger Federer’s interviews in the past several months, whenever the topic of long-term goals or things he still hopes to accomplish comes up, he talks about regaining the #1 ranking in the world.
We wrote recently about his quest for #1 in an article about his remaining career milestones, but the fact remains that a year ago, attaining the top ranking again seemed impossible for the Swiss. Federer was undoubtedly on the decline, Andy Murray finally had a couple Grand Slam championships under his belt, and Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic looked to be in a league of their own.
What a difference a year can make. Nadal has once again been hobbled by injury. While he still seems capable of dominating anyone else in the sport when healthy, it’s becoming a fair question to ask if he might break down before he can make a legitimate run at Federer’s Grand Slam record. Djokovic is probably the best player on tour on any given day, but he’s no longer the sure thing he was a couple years ago. And Murray looks so out of sorts that it seems increasingly wrong even putting him in the “top four” conversation. Amidst this turmoil, Roger Federer—despite not winning a Grand Slam—put together a spectacular 2014, and now faces a simple, if difficult task: win the ATP World Tour Finals at the O2 Arena in London. He’s got a great shot at getting back to #1, though he needs Djokovic to stumble as well.
Well, so far, so good.
The World Tour Finals are underway now, and in his first two matches Federer has looked to be in a different class than the rest of his group. For those unfamiliar with the format for this event, it features only the top-eight ranked players in the world, separated into two groups of four. Each player plays the other three players in his group, and the top two competitors for each group then advance to the semi-finals (with each group’s winner playing the other group’s runner-up). Federer, the #2 seed at the event (behind Djokovic), was placed in a group with Murray and rising stars Milos Raonic and Kei Nishikori.
In his first match, Federer earned swift and decisive vengeance against Raonic, who actually defeated him at the Paris Masters recently. Federer won 6-1, 7-6 (7-0). Although the second set was certainly tougher, the relief and relaxation in Federer’s demeanor was apparent. BBC Sport quoted him after the match as saying “I was very happy with how I performed,” and those watching the match will certainly agree on his behalf. Facing a powerful young opponent hungry to prove himself at the year-end stage, Federer was utterly in command.
The second match came on Tuesday against a Kei Nishikori fresh off a fairly strong win against Murray, and most anticipated a tougher test for Federer. Betfair odds analyst and tipster Sean Calvert suggested Nishikori was a decent bet for the upset. Calvert wrote that it ought to be a “keenly contested affair,” citing Nishikori’s 2-2 career record against Federer, as well as his growing confidence. And frankly, after the young Japanese star’s recent run to the US Open final, it’s hard to doubt him on big stages. But Federer had other ideas. On Tuesday, he ended up dispatching Nishikori with undeniable ease, 6-3, 6-2, and the Swiss maestro now stands firmly atop his group standings. He still has to play Murray, but it’s looking like a near certainty that Federer will advance.
Federer’s form has been so strong through his first two matches in London that ESPN went as far as to say there’s no one around to stop him. In an article titled “Federer Reminds Us Why We Need Rafa,” Peter Bodo actually named Djokovic the favourite, but in the process basically established that Federer’s resurgence has left a considerable gap between the top two and the rest of the field. Indeed, we all long for a healthy Rafa’s return, as the sport is just more fun with more top competitors. But in the meantime, this is looking increasingly like an eventual showdown between Federer and Djokovic.
We’re not there yet. Djokovic got off to a strong start in his own group, which also includes Stanislas Wawrinka, Marin Cilic, and Tomas Berdych. However, Wawrinka has given him trouble on numerous occasions, and he could be a legitimate threat to top the group after his own strong start. Both will likely advance to the semi-finals, but at that point they may face Federer’s very best and most concentrated effort. The Swiss star has made it a personal goal, if not obsession, to regain #1, and he’s within a few wins of doing so and at the top of his game. It’s difficult to not view him as the favourite in London.