2018 got off to the perfect start for Roger Federer. The Swiss star began it by drawing level with Roy Emerson and Novak Djokovic with a sixth Australian Open crown, defeating Marin Cilic in the title match in five sets. That, coupled with 2017 finalist Rafael Nadal’s withdrawal in the quarterfinals due to a leg injury, left him within touching distance of becoming the oldest world #1 in history. He achieved that feat in Rotterdam where he also claimed the title.
But his trip to North America for the Sunshine Double wasn’t quite such a success. He played well in Indian Wells, but fell just short against Juan Martin del Potro in the final in a match that will surely be remembered as one of the best of the season. He then crashed out in his first match in Miami, losing to Thanasi Kokkinakis 6-3 3-6 6-7. The back-to-back failures to defend his crowns cost him his #1 ranking.
As has been the case for the last three years now, Federer then elected to skip the entire clay court season. He was left sitting on the sidelines as Nadal dominated all comers and Djokovic slowly worked his way back into form. Both men went on to enjoy fine grass court campaigns, with the Serbian re-establishing his Slam-winning credentials by taking the title at the All England Club and Nadal reaching his first Wimbledon semifinal since 2011. Federer was rather less successful.
Out of form throughout
Federer arrived in SW19 as the heavy favourite. In retrospect that may have been more the result of his exploits last year and the incredibly high standards he has set and usually matched throughout his career. For his form coming into the tournament was not hugely convincing. In his first outing of the grass court season he won the title in Stuttgart, but he hardly dominated. Indeed, he found himself staring down the barrel of defeat more than once, particularly against Nick Kyrgios.
He then returned to the familiar stomping ground of Halle where he was looking for his tenth title. But after labouring to the final, the Swiss was undone by Borna Coric in three-sets. In fairness to Federer, returning after the better part of three months away from the Tour is not the simplest of propositions and there was bound to be some rust. And he did do much to put to bed doubts about his form upon his arrival at Wimbledon.
He found himself entirely untroubled in swatting aside first Dusan Lajovic, then Eastbourne finalist Lukas Lacko before dismissing a tired-looking Jan-Lennard Struff to reach the second week. Adrian Mannarino looked like he would provide Federer’s first test of the tournament, but was instead also swiftly dispatched 6-0 7-5 6-4. Things looked to be heading in a similar direction against Kevin Anderson in the quarterfinals where Federer at one point led 6-2 7-6 5-4 and held a match point.
Then suddenly they weren’t. At all. The big South African’s game clicked into gear and he wrested control of the match away from Federer. That’s not to say it was easy. Federer fought valiantly, and for much of the decider, looked the likelier of the two to take it. Until his legs, and perhaps his advancing years, betrayed him. Anderson took the match 2-6 6-7 7-5 6-4 13-11 to reach his first-ever Wimbledon semifinal, leaving Federer to wonder what had happened.
Class is permanent
But whilst Federer may have lost earlier than expected, it’s certainly not time to panic for him or his fans. He may have struggled to find his best game for most of the grass court season, but his results would likely still have been the envy of most players. Indeed, one title, another final and a Grand Slam quarterfinal are respectable results for anyone even if they aren’t quite what Federer must have had in mind when he first stepped onto the grass courts this season.
Nor is his loss to Anderson anything like the shock his defeat to Sergiy Stakhovsky in 2013 at the Championships or his loss to Andreas Seppi in Melbourne three years ago were. Anderson is a top ten player and now a two-time Grand Slam finalist. In short, he’s hardly lacking in pedigree. The unusually hot weather also proved a leveller this year, with the courts less slick and providing higher bounces, which helped those not usually accounted grass court specialists.
If there is something for Federer to be concerned about, however, it’s the form of his rivals. Djokovic, in particular, can surely only have taken confidence from his Wimbledon triumph and must now be accounted a serious threat on his favoured hard courts. Nadal too looked full of fire at Wimbledon and has not won three US Open titles for nothing, whilst del Potro continued his fine form this season. Andy Murray’s brief return also showed promise and Kevin Anderson’s ambitions will be growing.
If Federer wants to recapture his former glories during the North American hard court swing, which must be high on his list of priorities after failing to win a title there last year, he will have to battle through a tougher field than he faced last year. But if he has shown one thing throughout his long career, it’s that he relishes nothing more than a challenge. Don’t expect him to start backing down from them now.