What a difference a year makes.
In 2017, Roger Federer entered the Australian Open as the 17th seed thanks to a six-month layoff due to injury. Even to the Swiss, a championship run seemed unlikely. But after winning seven matches — including four against players inside the Top 10 of the ATP Rankings — Federer had done the seemingly impossible, claiming his 18th Grand Slam title despite not competing since Wimbledon.
This time around, there will be no surprises. After a 19th major title at Wimbledon, three ATP World Tour Masters 1000 triumphs (Indian Wells, Miami, Shanghai) and seven overall trophies on the year, Federer is arguably the favourite as the ATP World Tour’s best get set to battle it out in Melbourne Park.
It does not hurt that Federer has built confidence from thriving under the utmost pressure in 2017, leading the ATP World Tour with a 13-3 (81.6 per cent) record in deciding sets. Only three players came within 10 per cent of Federer in the category — Novak Djokovic (80 per cent), David Goffin (78.6 per cent) and Stan Wawrinka (75 per cent).
There is even a slight chance that Federer could re-take the No. 1 ranking for the first time since 22 October 2012 — he’d have to retain the Australian Open title, with Nadal failing to advance to the quarter-finals. Will the 36-year-old continue his magical run of form to a 20th major trophy?
Here are three reasons why he may do just that:
1) Momentum, Momentum, Momentum
The statistics speak for themselves. Nobody won a higher ratio of matches in 2017 than Federer, who compiled a tremendous 52-5 (91. 2 per cent) record despite not playing in the six months prior to the campaign.
While three players — Rafael Nadal (67-11), David Goffin (59-24) and Alexander Zverev (55-22) — won more matches than him, they all lost significantly more, too. And additionally, Federer led the ATP World Tour with a 40-4 record on hard courts, which the Australian Open is contested on. The Swiss (90 per cent) was the only player to win more than 82 per cent of his matches on the surface.
Furthermore, Federer will take confidence knowing that he had success early in the season last year, winning 2017’s first three ‘Big Titles’ (Grand Slams and ATP World Tour Masters 1000s) in Melbourne, Indian Wells and Miami.
Federer Extends ‘Big Titles’ Lead
Now, it is important to keep in mind that Federer did skip the clay court season, so he played far fewer matches than his rivals. Would he have enjoyed as much success on the quicker surfaces throughout the year if he used time and energy to take on the red dirt? Federer still had enough in the tank for a strong close to the campaign.
While he suffered a shocking defeat at the hands of David Goffin in the semi-finals of the Nitto ATP Finals, the end of the season was still impressive for Federer, who triumphed at the Shanghai Rolex Masters and the Swiss Indoors Basel.
2) Favourable Early Draw
Sure, there are plenty of dangerous opponents lurking in Federer’s half of the draw. The 36-year-old could face seventh seed David Goffin or the red-hot Juan Martin del Potro in the quarter-finals. If Federer advances to the semi-finals, a daunting quartet of possible competitors awaits — fourth seed Alexander Zverev, fifth seed Dominic Thiem, 2014 champion Stan Wawrinka and six-time winner Novak Djokovic.
But, with that being said, Federer needs to win one match at a time. And his path to the quarter-finals is a favourable one. In fact, his combined record against all possible opponents through the Round of 16 is 48-5. He has lost against only two of the 15 players — No. 22 Milos Raonic (10-3 FedEx ATP Head2Head) and No. 29 Richard Gasquet (16-2 FedEx ATP Head2Head). The top seed he could face before the quarter-finals is No. 13 Sam Querrey, against whom he holds a 3-0 FedEx ATP Head2Head series lead, which includes an 8-0 advantage in sets. None of their sets have been closer than 6-4.
And, don’t forget, Federer did beat four Top 10 players en route to his title in Melbourne last year. This road just appears slightly simpler — the benefits of being World No. 2 rather than the 17th seed. View Draw
3) Turning Around A Lopsided Rivalry
In 2017, Federer punctuated his dream run in Melbourne with a stunning comeback against Rafael Nadal, winning the final five games of a five-set thriller to claim his first Grand Slam title since 2012 Wimbledon.
But before that encounter, Federer had lost five of his past six matches against Nadal, as well as their previous six Grand Slam battles. In 2017, however, the Swiss turned the tide and won all four meetings, narrowing their FedExATP Head2Head to 23-15 in favour of the Spaniard.
While Nadal still has an eight-match lead in their rivalry, it is tough to ignore the fact that Federer has won their past seven sets, with all of them coming on hard court.
“I just think I’m not so scarred like maybe I have been in the past, not that I was horribly scarred in any way, but I did lose against him sometimes, a lot of the times especially on the clay courts,” Federer said after beating Nadal for the title in Shanghai last October. “I think I have also played him well. Clearly avoiding him — not playing him on clay has helped. So I’m able to stay on the hard courts or on faster courts against him, but I have been playing very well when I have faced off against him.”
Both players need to win six matches to have a chance of facing off in their 10th Grand Slam final (Nadal leads 6-3), but that momentum shift in their rivalry may certainly play a role if they do meet again.
Federer’s Potential Path To The Australian Open Title