Now, keep this to yourselves (we do not want to be seen as the purveyors of rumour), but Roger Federer is looking good. Very good. Very, very good.
He was looking so good that there were times when he almost appeared to be showing off as he sploshed Aljaz Bedene 6-3 6-4 6-3 to open his Australian Open 2018 campaign on Tuesday night.
It cannot be easy being Fed. Most players come to a major championship and ease their way in. The first round or two may be a bit scratchy, but provided they win, everything is just fine. The form will come, the nerves will go and come the second week everyone will be firing on all cylinders.
But the Mighty Rodge does not really do scratchy. What for him is an average, run-of-the-mill forehand still looks elegant and effortless to everyone else. What for Rodge is a bread-and-butter play is the point of a lifetime to a mere mortal. And against Bedene, our hero was looking for – and finding – a little more than bread and butter.
There was one round-arm smash, played while moving backwards and launching his 36-year-old body skywards and executed (players like that word ‘execute’) with his back to his opponent that had the crowd gasping. Then there were some returns that had Bedene groaning. And then there was all the other stuff in between: the movement, the serving, that backhand that came a revelation last year and did so much to earn him the title. Rodge looked great, so great that even John McEnroe ran out of questions in his on-court interview (how many time can you ask: ‘how do you get to be so great for so long?’) and invited Will Ferrell on court to help him out.
Ferrell is not what you might call a shrinking violet and, grabbing the microphone, he asked the questions everyone wanted answered.
“Roger, tonight you seemed like a gazelle out there on the court,” Ferrell began. “Would you describe your game as a silky gazelle?”
This flummoxed Rodge for a moment.
“Maybe,” the champion said, “maybe not. Don’t they get eaten at the end?”
“Not if they’re fast enough!” the other Mr F advised.
And Fed was fast; 99 minutes fast against a decent and solid – if unspectacular – pro in Bedene.
In a tournament where so many of the top men are either recovering from or dealing with injuries, finding a favourite was proving just a tad difficult last week. Well, it was if you discounted the chances of one R. Federer of Switzerland. After all, he was a positively ancient 36, and much as last year had been a fairytale return to the tour after six months off with a knee injury, surely he could not do that again.
Even Federer was not having it. Noooo, nooo, nooo: a 36-year-old cannot be a favourite to win a Grand Slam tournament, he announced before he had struck a ball in earnest. Nope, that favourite tag belonged to someone else. He offered up a few names (Djokovic, Nadal … take your pick) but then he came out and played like a Rolls Royce purring in second gear to reach the second round. He barely broke a sweat (although he might just have broken Bedene’s spirit).
The only fly in Fed’s ointment is that nagging doubt: last year brought success beyond his wildest imagination. That final against Rafa was an epic, that fortnight against everyone was the stuff of dreams. How on earth is he ever going to top that?
“I’m hoping for it to go well again; I’m just not sure if it can go this well.” he said. “Last year was just so good that I’m just worried. I kind of know it won’t be [as good]: I’m a year older, guys are coming back again – Rafa’s in tip-top shape. I can’t control it all.
“And last year was a fairytale. And last year was last year. That’s the problem, but that’s the beauty of it. [Last year], it’s always going to be there, it’s the favourite year of my career. So this year I’m just hoping to stay healthy, stay out there, give myself chances and hopefully be in those big matches like last year so that I can play my very best and enjoy myself out there in front of a big crowd, keep working hard and see what happens at the end.”
Mmmm: The Mighty Rodge wants to play his very best, enjoy himself while he does so and see what happens. But after 19 Grand Slam titles, he knows what happens when he plays his very best: he lifts the trophy. That would make him the favourite for the title. But he is not admitting it and we are not spreading any rumours.
Roger Federer is the favourite for the Australian Open 2018. But you did not hear it here first.
Author: Alix Ramsay (© website Australian open) // Photography: Getty Images Sport
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