Roger Federer has only lost once this season and clinched three of the biggest titles of the season so far. Al Bello / Getty Images
Roger Federer has only lost once this season and clinched three of the biggest titles of the season so far. Al Bello / Getty Images

Roger Federer’s dream start to 2017 can continue with wise decision to swerve clay season

The dream, as Roger Federer said after his Miami Open triumph, continues.

Plagued by injuries in recent times, first of the back and then the knee, and written off as an ageing has-been, Federer should have been riding into the sunset at this age of 35 years and seven months.

Instead, returning to the courts after six months out due to a knee injury, he has won three of the biggest tournaments in the first quarter of the season, including an 18th grand slam at the Australian Open — his first major title since Wimbledon in 2012.

This is Federer’s best start to a season since 2006 — he is 19-1 with the only defeat coming against Russian world No 116 Evgeny Donskoy in the second round of Dubai, and is 7-0 against the world’s top-10 players.

And the wins should taste a lot sweeter because the Swiss has defeated his nemesis-in-chief Rafael Nadal in each of those three tournaments — the Australian Open final, Indian Wells fourth round and now the Miami final on Sunday, winning 6-3, 6-4. Never before in their fabled rivalry had Federer won three matches on the trot against Nadal. Now, he has won the past four.

“What a start to the year — can’t believe it,” Federer said during the trophy presentation in Miami.

Can it get any better? Yes, it probably can. Starting the year at No 17 in the rankings, Federer has risen No 4.

Given his form — and the struggles of Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic — there is a realistic chance of him climbing back to the top of the rankings for the first time since October, 2012.

Pragmatism has played as big a part in Federer’s success and, understandably, he has decided against testing his surgically repaired knees on clay.

Instead, he has chosen to take an eight-week break and return at the French Open, which starts on May 28.

“I’m not 24 anymore, so things have changed in a big way,” Federer told ESPN on court after his Miami win. “I need rest. My body needs healing, and I need time as well to prepare. I have to pick my moments where I can peak and stay healthy.”

The temptation to keep going, though, must have been great, for Federer will lose a lot on the momentum side. But as he said in Indian Wells, “rankings is not a priority right now. It’s totally about being healthy, enjoying the tournaments I’m playing and trying to win those”.

Winning on clay has not come as easy to Federer as the other surfaces, and not just because of Nadal’s brilliance on the red gravel.

The Swiss’s attacking instincts are not ideal for the slower clay courts, where longer rallies are the norm, patience is an art form and coming to the net can be perilous.

Clay courts also place huge demands on a player’s stamina.

Federer, as he said in Dubai, understands exhausting himself on clay courts could undermine his chances at Wimbledon and the US Open.

More importantly, staying off the clay courts should keep the Swiss in his current frame of mind. The six-month break has helped him as much on the mental side as the physical.

It had been liberating in a sense, for it allowed him to put all those sapping defeats to Djokovic at the majors in the past and come back playing exuberant tennis again.

Federer is playing with absolute freedom now. A few defeats on clay could have put the shackles back on, and that would not have been great news for his fans, who will want this dream to continue for long.

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