He’s in this sport for the trophies, of course. But at 36, some 20 years and a like number of Grand Slam titles into his illustrious career, Roger Federer still looks forward to the everyday challenges, the kind of tests that come from tennis dreamers all but half his age looking to make their mark on the pro tour.
The first time or two you face them, you don’t always know what to expect, what’s coming at you. Outside of some surface scouting, you’re unfamiliar with their patterns, their tendencies. It’s hard to put together a game plan under those circumstances. Even if you do, you’re often forced to adjust.
Some folks, a certain Swiss among them, treasure those conditions.
“I like it when it’s the unknown,” said the top-ranked/top-seeded Federer this week at the BNP Paribas Open, “even though it can be a bit scary.”
Federer’s most recent win, his quarterfinal against of Hyeon Chung, is a spot-on example. He’d caught a brief glimpse of the South Korean at the Australian Open, before the 21-year-old retired with foot blisters, but it wasn’t enough to get a true feel. And now his next match on Saturday, too. Though he defeated Borna Coric in their only previous encounter, it was back in 2015. A lot can change in three years.
“I think one of the things Roger knows deep down inside is that Borna is a weaker Novak, a less dynamic, less aggressive Novak,” observed Todd Martin, who worked with Novak Djokovic in 2009-10. “The one thing that Borna is doing right now is that he’s competing well. There’s an interesting element to how much better Borna is now than when Roger played him the last time.”
Coric, who as an 18-year-old #NextGen star rocketed up the rankings to No. 33, has since leveled out, arriving in the desert at No. 49. But he has impressed in Indian Wells, handing out a pair of 6-0 sets in the first two rounds, then knocking off seeds Roberto Bautisa Agut and Kevin Anderson. While he doesn’t necessarily possess any big-strike weaponry, his legs, his all-court movement, shouldn’t go unnoticed.
“I just don’t see Borna being able to take the play away from Roger,” continued Martin, now CEO of the International Tennis Hall of Fame. “Then it’s just a matter of whether Roger can temper his aggressiveness if he hits patches of not being sharp. Roger loves controlling play. When he’s controlling play and he’s sharp, it’s really something. When he’s controlling play and he’s not sharp, it can go south on him. Other than that, Roger’s just so well prepared to handle somebody like Coric.”
Federer is anything but an “unknown” for Coric. He may have faced him only once, but the Croat has spent a lifetime watching his legend-status exploits.
“Roger? I don’t have to say anything,” he said. “We all know him.”
Delpo shook up the sport in 2009 when he broke up the Federer-Nadal stranglehold, winning the US Open and rising to a career-high No. 4. But wrist issues soon surfaced, and before long the 6-foot-6 Argentine was undergoing the knife. In 2010. Again in 2014. Twice in 2015. So grim was the outlook, and for so many months was the ever-popular athlete sidelined, that it appeared his career might be in jeopardy altogether.
Raonic can relate. The same year he captured his first ATP title in San Jose, in 2011, the seemingly snake-bit Canuck underwent hip surgery. Then came foot surgery in 2015. And after a breakout 2016, when he finally seemed to be past his health issues, reaching the Wimbledon final and rising to No. 3, his body betrayed him again.
Following his quarterfinal victory over Top-10-seeking Sam Querrey on Friday, Raonic took a moment to revisit his abbreviated 2017.
“Let’s go down the list: right adductor, left glut at the beginning of the year. Then I tore my hamstring in the beginning of February,” he said. “After Wimbledon, I had to have wrist surgery. Through the summer I tried to play a few events, tried to treat the issue. That wasn’t possible. I had surgery just before the US Open, was hoping to start my offseason in the early weeks of November. And then in November I hurt my meniscus, so I couldn’t play for six weeks.”
In short, as Raonic asserted, “It’s been a catastrophe.”
For the moment at least, it’s all behind them. As Del Potro would say after his quarterfinal dismissal of Philipp Kohlschreiber, “All my injuries are in the past, completely in the past, and I’m not thinking anymore about my old problems. That’s the way I look at life. Now I’m here just thinking in the present, looking forward to the future. I’m not thinking anymore about the bad moments in my tennis life.”
Seeking the first ATP World Tour Masters 1000 title of his career, the 29-year-old Del Potro, armed with perhaps the heaviest forehand in the game, will take on a true power server, one whose coach, Goran Ivanisevic, hopes will venture into the net on occasion. Raonic is sure to attack Del Potro’s compromised backhand, too, though the stroke seems to be improving with each and every match.
Raonic owns a slight 2-1 advantage in their head-to-head, claiming their most recent meeting last year in the Delray Beach semis, 6-3, 7-6(6). Both have reached the final here before, Del Potro in 2013, and Raonic in 2016.
On Saturday, we’ll find out who will return to the title tilt.