After being welcomed as a saviour in Brisbane, adding the saintly Stefan Edberg as a coach for “inspiration” purposes and playing a charity exhibition at Rod Laver Arena in front of adoring fans, now comes the reality check of Roger Federer’s 2014 excellent adventure Down Under.
On Monday at Melbourne Park, he begins what could be a Murderer’s Row of opponents – potentially Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Andy Murray, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic – in quest of a fifth Australian Open title.
“This is clearly a tough draw I have,” he said on Saturday after a third consecutive straight-sets victory.
“But important for me now is that I don’t go crazy about who I play.”
The dress rehearsal – Federer beat Tsonga in the ‘Roger and Friends’ exhibition 12 days ago – is over, and now the mates meet in a win-or-go-home format.
Federer leads their head-to-head 9-4. A year ago in two Grand Slam quarter-finals, he beat the affable Frenchman in a see-saw five-setter at the Australian Open and then played poorly as Tsonga prevailed 7-5 6-3 6-3 at Roland Garros.
Tsonga once came from 5-1 behind in the final set in Montreal to win, and also famously rallied from a two-sets-to-love deficit at Wimbledon in 2011 with an astonishing flurry to take the last three sets 6-4 6-4 6-4.
Federer claims his tetchy back is fine. “I feel very fresh and very good physically,” he said on Saturday.
Tsonga is equally positive. “I feel super-good and want to go further. Roger knows me and I know him. We know what to expect. I have to play authoritative tennis.”
It will be hard for Kei Nishikori not to know what to expect against Rafael Nadal. He has only won a single set in four meetings with the top seed, and that was six years ago.
Nadal’s Spanish compatriot, Roberto Bautista Agut, ousted fifth seed Juan Martin del Potro last week, and today plays the anointed ‘new Roger’ – gifted Grigor Dimitrov.
Federer appreciates the similarities in his and the Bulgarian’s 22-year-old’s styles. “We have a one-handed backhand and we like to play athletic tennis,” he said. But he cautioned that Dimitrov still must “get out there and face the music every other week.” A win over Bautista Agut would be a great start to Dimitrov’s first second week at a Slam.
Highlighting women’s play will be a re-match of last year’s controversial semi-final when Victoria Azarenka famously left the court in the second-last game against Sloane Stephens for an ‘injury” time-out before returning to finish off a 6-1 6-4 win.
Things should be less eventful this time.
Maria Sharapova faces the always upset-minded and diminutive (161cm) Dominika Cibulkova, while Jelena Jankovic plays 22-year-old Simona Halep who won six lower-level WTA titles in 2013.
Fifth seed Agnieska Radwanska should stop the run of Hobart champion Garbine Muguruza. The Spaniard, 20, has won 11 matches on the trot, but Radwanska has the guile to break down her power-laden game.
In a men’s match on Monday afternoon in Hisense Arena, 33-year-old lucky loser Stéphane Robert of France will be in action. Robert plays what he calls “casino tennis – hitting crazy shots, closing my eyes and hoping the ball will go in.” Well Mr. Casino Tennis, meet the Bank of Scotland – Andy Murray.
TOM’S INTREPID TIPS
Tsonga vs Federer
It’s tough to believe in Federer after his last two Grand Slam losses – Sergiy Stakhovsky (Wimbledon) and Tommy Robredo (US Open). Before that it was today’s opponent, Tsonga, at Roland Garros. Tsonga in four.
Azarenka vs Stephens
Compared with their uproarious Azarenka-Stephens semi-final a year ago at Rod Laver Arena, this one is fairly tame with the superior player prevailing. Azarenka in two.
Nadal vs Nishikori
Is there anything easier than forecasting Nadal’s matches – except maybe that summers in Melbourne will have wide-ranging temperatures? The omens aren’t good for Nishikori. Nadal in straight.
Sharapova vs Cibulkova
Cibulkova stormed into the round of 16 after 6-0 6-1 and 6-1 6-0 wins. But in their last meeting Sharapova did that kind of inflicting – 6-1 6-1 at Wimbledon in 2011. Sharapova in two.
Dimitrov vs Bautista Agut
This is a trap match for the talented but still immature Dimitrov. After beating rival Milos Raonic, he better not let down against red-hot Spaniard Bautista Agut. Dimitrov in four.
Radwanska vs Muguruza
Radwanska has driven opponents nuts for years with her variety of pace and placement, and that’s what gets to the streaking Spaniard Muguruza. Radwanska in two.
Murray vs Robert
Murray might win in two-and-a-half, but that’s not possible. The lucky loser’s Robert’s good fortune comes to an end. Murray in three.
Halep vs Jankovic
Halep has a chance to show that she can actually rise to the occasion in a Grand Slam. She nips Jankovic at the post. Halep in three.