Roger Federer ‘working hard to try to catch’ Djokovic though Nadal remains ‘ultimate challenge’

As Federer looked back on an eventful 2015, he says he is happy with how he had played. The Swiss, 34, is a veteran in tennis terms, yet he managed to win six titles on the ATP Tour this year.

Novak Djokovic, right, has been tough to break down for Roger Federer. Julio Cortez / AP Photo
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DUBAI // During the course of a long and illustrious career – one that has seen him win a record 17 grand slam singles titles – Roger Federer has found Rafael Nadal to be the opponent he most struggled to beat.

For those who have seen Novak Djokovic enjoy a dominant 2015, it would not have been surprising had Federer picked the Serb out as his biggest nemesis, but then the Federer-Nadal rivalry has lasted nearly a decade.

“Rafa for me has been the ultimate challenge, along with some other players at the beginning when I was coming up and when I was bit more limited in my game,” said Federer, speaking in Dubai in the midst his International Premier Tennis League preparations.

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“People like [Argentine player David] Nalbandian and [Australia’s Lleyton] Hewitt and [former British No 1 Tim] Henman – you name it – some guys I struggled to play against.”

But Federer refused to be drawn into the debate about who is better – Djokovic or Nadal? “Totally different players, but Rafa’s been tougher for me even though I guess Novak has beaten me as many times as well,” he said.

The Swiss also paid rich tribute to Djokovic, especially after how far the world No 1 has come over the past eight years.

“He just became a really, really good player and tough to beat,” he said. “Especially in recent years, he’s taken it to another level. That just made it harder for me to dominate him. But still I’m winning my fair share of matches against him, and I’m really enjoying playing against Novak.”

A year to remember

As Federer looked back on an eventful 2015, the Swiss said he was happy with how he had played. The Swiss is 34 years old and a veteran in tennis terms, yet he managed to win six titles on the ATP Tour this year.

“If I look at the year itself – how I played and how many tournaments I’ve won – it’s been a really good year,” he pointed out. “This year I won a lot of matches. I was very competitive and beat almost all my rivals in the top 10.

“I played some really nice tennis. It was aggressive, healthy and I thought it was nearly great.”

But the seven-time Wimbledon champion stopped short of calling it the best year of his career. “If I compare it to my best years, it’s obviously not as good. I used to sometimes win three slams in a year, so for me that was the best year. I can’t give myself a 10 out of 10 this year,” he said.

The man who stopped it from being “great” was Djokovic. “Novak was really tough to beat, especially on the big occasions,” Federer added. “He’s got sky-high confidence and we hope that will come down again sooner than later, but we’re working hard to try to catch him.

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“I’m working hard to become the best player I can be. I enjoyed myself and was very happy with the season, even though I didn’t win a slam.”

The UAE Royals player added that Djokovic is “in the driving seat for the world No 1 ranking for some time now” and that his dominance “won’t change quickly if you look at the points”.

Having said that, the former long-time No 1 himself would be happy to leave rank-chasing to the younger generation, adding that he was more focused on improving his game.

“It’s about winning tournaments at this point in my career. For me if I’m ranked two, three, four, five it’s less important,” he said. “Once you’ve been world No 1 like myself or Rafa or others, you can go in wrong direction in the year if you start chasing rankings.”

Sights on Rio 2016

One event he has his eyes on is the 2016 Olympics at Rio de Janeiro. “I’ve always said the Olympics are very important to me,” he said. “Every Olympics has been an amazing experience and an eye-opener, a great learning curve for me seeing other athletes and getting inspired and motivated, and carrying the flag was such a proud moment in my career and my life as a person. To have done that twice for Switzerland was incredible – in Athens and Beijing.”

Federer won the gold in the doubles with Stan Wawrinka at Beijing in 2008, and a silver in the singles at London 2012 when the final was played at Wimbledon.

He will again team up with Wawrinka at Rio, and there will be the much-anticipated reunion with 20-time major winner Martina Hingis.

“I’m very excited about that because I haven’t played with her in 15 years,” Federer said. “I looked up to her when I was younger. I thought she was the most unbelievable talent. She’s almost my age and she was winning grand slam titles when I was still at the National tennis Centre trying to make it on the tour. I couldn’t believe how good she was.”

New year, new coach

Last week, Federer parted ways with veteran coach Stefan Edberg and included Ivan Ljubicic in his coaching staff to keep up with the constantly-evolving game.

“Usually I worked with players who played in a different generations [including the likes of Tony Roche],” he said.

“Because Ivan played a lot against some of the players I still play today, it’s the first time I have someone on my coaching staff who’s done that.

“So it’s very exciting for me to hear him out, and also in terms of motivation hearing a different voice is always very nice.”

Meanwhile, Severin Luthi will remain Federer’s main coach. “Edberg [whom he hired two years ago] obviously was amazing, nicest guy, gave me great advice and I will appreciate that forever.”

Surfaces do not matter

Federer says it is not easy to compare eras, with the game having changed exponentially in recent years.

“Clearly it seems easier than ever to run through different surfaces,” he pointed out.

“I know we’ve become really good players. You can play almost the same way on grass, hard court and clay, and indoors.

“Back in the day, [former French Open champion] Thomas Muster struggled on grass and [14-time major winner Pete] Sampras struggled on clay. We had more expertise on each particular surface. It was just a different time.”

Impressive Wawrinka

The Swiss also lauded the massive progress made over the last few years by countryman Wawrinka, which has taken him to No 4 in the world rankings.

“I couldn’t be happier for him that he’s playing as well as he is. I didn’t expect him to win two slams and the Davis Cup. Playing the way he does now is unreal. I’m blown away by the progress he’s made.

“When he catches fire, he can beat anybody.”

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