Roger Federer isn’t often described as a gruff old champion, but his reaction to questions regarding the ascension of Novak Djokovic and his own recent lack of outstanding results reveal a man who is troubled by the fact that he is no longer the world’s top player — let alone the most feared player.
Federer has not been that guy since 2007. When he’s been healthy, current No. 1 Rafael Nadal has been that man, winning four out of the last eight Grand Slams he’s contested. One major, the 2009 U.S. Open, went to Juan Martin del Potro and another, the 2011 Australian Open, went to Djokovic, while Federer took two in 2009, the French Open and Wimbledon.
And for the first two months of this season, Djokovic has been that guy, winning the Aussie Open and Dubai, both titles where he scored wins over Federer.
The Swiss is in a bit of denial these days, saying he’s been playing reasonably well the past 12 months, and he isn’t concerned about his form. Give him tremendous credit for not hiding behind a bunch of clichés and saying the No. 1 ranking does mean a lot to him, but doubt him a little when he says that not winning a Grand Slam in the past year doesn’t nag at him.
"I like being world No. 1 [rather than] than 2," he said with a hard stare after being asked why the top ranking was important. "At the moment it [matters] in a big way. It’s part of my big goals for the year, to try and get back to world No. 1."
The 29-year-old Federer owns a record 16 major titles, and before he began to lose control of the top spot has said time and time again the Slams were the leading indicators as to how well a player was performing.
So for Federer to say now that winning 2010 Cincinnati, Basel, Stockholm, the ATP World Finals and 2011 Dubai is anywhere as significant as raising the big trophies at a major is just plain silly. Not to discount those events in any way, but it’s widely agreed upon that at the Slams there is the most pressure because the biggest prizes are on the line. That’s why Federer is considered by many to be the best ever. He’s won a slew of Slams. It’s not because he’s pleased his hometown crowd in Basel with title runs.
"It wasn’t that bad — I made two quarters and two semis. I should have made the final of the [U.S.] Open and had chances elsewhere," said Federer, who is the second seed at the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells. "I didn’t play the best of my life last summer of last year and I was hoping to win the tournaments, but [Tomas] Berdych [who beat him at Wimbledon] and [Robin] Soderling [who beat him at Roland Garros] played clutch tennis when they had to. The last two [losses] against Novak were close. I consider the one against Novak in Australia close as well even though the score doesn’t suggest that. He knows how close it was. I think I’ve been playing really well the last six months. I didn’t make the finals of the last four Grand Slams but I’ve still been very consistent . . . I don’t feel I’m empty without a Grand Slam."
Djokovic has won his last 14 matches, including two in the year-end Davis Cup final, seven matches in winning the Aussie Open and another five in winning Dubai a few weeks ago. In both of those tournaments, he beat Federer, out-muscling him in Australia and also overwhelming him in Dubai. Federer says both those losses were tight, but they were not as the Serbian swarmed him and never seemed to be in trouble inside the baseline.
Unlike four years ago when he was more willing to pound his own chest, Djokovic rarely utters provocative remarks anymore and when asked about his hot streak, instead took a bow to both Nadal and Federer, calling them the tour’s best.
"Results are showing everything they have done in the last five years proves enough," Djokovic said. "I’m still No. 3 of the world. I know that I have won Grand Slams and I haven’t lost this year, but they’re still No. 1 and 2, and they have many, many more majors than I have or any other player on the tour. So you’ve got to give them credit for that. That’s why they are the two best. But maybe the dominance of Roger and Rafa on the tour is not as high as it was up to two years ago."
Federer still has enough desire and game to turn the tables on Djokovic again (he owns a 13-8 record against him), he just has to show it. Djokovic cannot be called a better player than Nadal at this point, because Nadal did beat him in the 2010 U.S. Open final, and in Australia, the Spaniard tore a thigh muscle just a few games into his loss to David Ferrer in the quarterfinals and certainly would have had a shot against Djokovic had he managed to reach the final.
But Nadal gets hurt annually so to speculate that it won’t happen again this year and that he’ll be able to defend his three upcoming Grand Slam titles would be foolhardy. He’s been the tour’s best overall player since 2008 and just because Djokovic hit a hot streak doesn’t mean this summer that’s he going to go "Rafa" on the rest of the tour and completely dominate on clay, grass and hardcourts. Many standout players have put together great three month stretches before, but few can sustain that level through an entire season.
None of the world’s top three have many points to defend at Indian Wells or in Miami in two weeks time, tournaments that were won by Ivan Ljubicic and Andy Roddick respectively in 2010. With a motivated Nadal, Federer, Roddick and No. 5 Andy Murray in action, the tennis world will watch Djokovic closely to see how he holds up. As Federer said, the Serbian "was always in the conversation, and he’s in a good spell now and was at end of last year. He had better and worse times like we all have and right now he’s playing really well, and it will be interesting to see how he plays here."
Nadal acknowledged that Djokovic is "probably the player who is playing better right now on the tour," but the Spaniard is always talking positively about his foes, going so far as to say that his match against South African qualifier Rik De Voest at Indian Wells will be "very diffuclt."
While Djokovic is reticent to toot his own horn, when asked what his thoughts are on the comment that he’s the player to beat now, he did say with a smile: "I like to hear that."