Roger Federer in fine fettle for Australian Open title defence

Roger Federer in good spirits during a practice session as he chases an unprecedented 20th grand slam title. Picture: Getty.
Roger Federer in good spirits during a practice session as he chases an unprecedented 20th grand slam title. Picture: Getty.
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If you want to know how it is done, ask the best in the business.

Fair enough, Roger Federer is ‘only’ ranked No 2 in the world behind Rafael Nadal but as he chases an unprecedented 20th grand slam title at the Australian Open – he starts his campaign against Aljaz Bedene tomorrow – he is the greatest player the sport has seen. And as he surveys the massed ranks of walking wounded hobbling between him and the trophy, his message to them all is simple: man up, boys.

Nadal is hoping that he has healed sufficiently from another bout of his chronic knee problems, Novak Djokovic is keeping everything crossed that the progress of recovery for his right elbow is “fine and adequate” enough to allow him to compete while Stan Wawrinka is just happy that his left knee is now strong enough to let him try a round or two at Melbourne Park.

Milos Raonic has only played one match since October and there is a barely a bit of his body that has not suffered some form of strain, jolt or rupture over the past few years, while Kei Nishikori is back at home nursing the wrist injury that has kept him quiet since August. And Andy Murray is waiting to get the all-clear to fly home following hip surgery.

On Saturday, Nadal wished his fellow patients well but also begged the tennis authorities to take note of the growing list of injured players. “There are too many injuries on the tour,” Nadal said. “I am not the one to say, but somebody has to look about what’s going on.”

Federer, meanwhile, is the only obvious bet for the title at the grand old age of 36. He is feeling as well and as fit as he could expect to be just two weeks into the new season and much as he tried to play down his status, he knows well enough that his chances are looking the rosiest as the tournament begins. A year ago, as he came back from a knee injury, he thought reaching the fourth round would be a real result – and he ended up beating Nadal in the final. This year, his focus is very different.

“I play down my chances just because I don’t think a 36-year-old should be a favourite of a tournament, it should not be the case,” he said. “This year I hope to win the first few rounds and get rolling hopefully whereas last year I was just hoping to win [a match]. It was more of a ‘let’s see what happens’ kind of tournament, maybe similar to what Novak or Stan or others are going through this year.”

As for the situation that Djokovic and Wawrinka find themselves in, Federer was sympathetic towards them as people but somewhat less so as professionals.

“The ATP is looking into it,” Federer said. “I always said, it’s like the moment you reach 30, it’s normal to maybe have some signs of usage of the body, whatever you want to call it. But the players and their trainers and the tour and everybody should try their very best to try to make sure they can avoid injuries. Is that by playing less? Is that by training different? Is that by playing a different schedule?

“Whose responsibility is it at the end of the day? I think it’s the players. Sometimes you do get unlucky. Like a soccer team: sometimes you have seasons where more guys are hurt than others.

“I think we’re professional, we know how to warm up, we know what to do. Later on things become a bit more tricky. But I think that goes with the business.

“I’ve played thousands of matches in my life and I’m sure I’ve gotten lucky throughout my career. But sometimes you have to take a minute and talk to the team about it, like how we’re going to approach these next three months, next year, next day. Everything needs to be perfectly planned, I think, to avoid as many injuries as possible.”

When the theory that Messrs Murray, Nadal and Djokovic play an altogether more physical game than Federer was proposed, the mighty Swiss sounded a bit miffed.

“I think attacking tennis also has a lot of wear and tear on the body because being highly explosive is something that’s a big challenge,” he said pointedly. “Playing more of a reactive game is maybe more physical in the sense that you play longer rallies, you spend more time on the court, but it’s always pretty much the same. It’s a similar rhythm. There’s not that much sprints going on in this regard.

“Then again, we talk about Murray and Djokovic being grinders. I mean, I think they actually play quite aggressive. To be honest, everybody, even Rafa, is standing closer to the baseline normally than he ever has in the past.”

The clear, but unspoken, message was that nobody does it better than Federer. In his 20th year as a professional and aiming for his 20th major singles title, the old boy seems to have worked out how it is done.