Masters of mettle
Roger Federer is winning games he'd have lost last season, says Barry Cowan. But now the test begins...
Last Updated: 09/03/12 8:07am
Roger Federer has had the perfect preparation for Indian Wells, the first World Tour Masters event of the year.
His victory over Andy Murray in Dubai means he has now won five of his last seven tournaments and he has gained more points over the last six months (stretching back to the start of US Open) than Djokovic, Murray and Nadal.
His game is exactly where he would want it to be going into what could be a difficult period for him.
The slower courts in Indian Wells and Miami will undoubtedly make his life tougher and it will be interesting to see how he fares against Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.
Federer hit the nail on the head when he said that he's playing more aggressively this year and he doesn't doubt his ability as much as he did in the middle of last season.
Physically he's in great shape and the desire to win is still clearly there; he's winning matches now that he was losing a year ago.
Federer may not dominate as much in the next two months as much as he has in the last six but he can look forward to the summer and playing Wimbledon, the Olympics and the US Open on surfaces that are more suitable to his style of play.
When Federer loses his way on court, as he did in Australia, he tends to put his foot on the accelerator and he wants to hit a winner every time. That acts to his detriment on the slower courts because you can't keep hitting everything as hard as you can and keep finding winners, particularly against guys who defend as well as Djokovic and Nadal do, because eventually you will miss.
Now once again Federer seems more comfortable sitting back a little bit in some rallies, which is very much what he did five, six, seven years ago. There are definitely times when he is happy to use his sliced backhand a little bit more.
The improvement in the defensive side of his game goes hand-in-hand with his upturn in confidence.
As well as Federer played in Dubai, I think Murray will look back on Saturday's final with disappointment.
Murray produced a great serving day to beat Novak Djokovic the day before; in fact I thought it was the best he'd served in a big match. He really took the game to the Serb.
But he wasn't able to back it up; when he had those two break points in the middle of the first set, there was a degree of doubt about what he wanted to do. It was as if he wasn't 100 per cent sure how he wanted to play the big points - just as he didn't at 5-5 in the fifth in Australia, when he had a couple of break points against Djokovic.
Of the top four players, Murray's serve has always been the least consistent. Far too often his first serve percentage slips below 50 per cent in big matches, whereas someone like Federer consistently above 60 per cent, even 65 per cent in similar games.
One of the key parts to Djokovic's improvement over the last 12-18 months has been his first serve, while the serve was key to how Nadal won his first US Open.
But Murray has proved on more than one occasion that he can serve exceptionally well; the more he can do that, the more the numbers will improve and, to be fair, there has been a year-on-year improvement in this area of his game.
Indian Wells has been a happy hunting ground in the past for Nadal, even though he lost last year's final to Djokovic, because the court is quite slow but the ball travels quickly through the air.
He will be champing at the bit to get out there - both at Indian Wells and Miami - after opting not to play in Dubai, which I have to say was an incredibly smart move given how quick the conditions were last week.
Nadal says he wants to peak for four months from now, which isn't perhaps quite as ludicrous as it sounds. We're entering a pretty brutal period of the year and he's going into it fresh.
The Spaniard has been drawn in the same half as Federer and Murray has been paired with Djokovic - another player who hasn't overplayed.
I don't think for one moment that the World No 1 is worried about having to defend all those points he amassed last year; rather he'll see it as a challenge. He starts as the favourite and it's up to the other guys to put their case forward, whether it be Nadal, Murray, Federer of Juan Martin del Potro, who is getting better with every passing week.
The Argentine is back in the top 10 and I've no doubt that he'll stay there for quite some while; for my money, he's a solid five because of all the players out there he's best equipped to challenge the top four.
We'll find out just how fit Del Potro is when he plays one of the top four because since he won the US Open in 2009, the others have raised the bar an immense amount. That's why it's all the more remarkable that Federer has been able to keep up the pace.
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Hi Barry, You asked for suggestions to rule changes for tennis recently and it always struck me that reducing the number of serves to one instead of two would improve the game. Instead of the possibility of a big server dominating a game possibly without the opponent even hitting the ball we would get more tennis and less unplayable serves. I know a big booming ace is very skilful but it is not exactly great entertainment. Although not exactly the same, the squash rules were changed in this manner many years ago and it improved the game as well as speeding it up. Regards, Jeremy Rodwell
BARRY REPLIES: Sorry Jeremy, I simply couldn't disagree more with your suggestion. If we went down that road you might as well abandon the serve altogether and play out of the hand, in which case every point would become the same. We'd see even fewer people coming to the net and there would be less serve-and-volleying as a result. If anything we need more variation in our game. The game has changed in the last 10 years anyway. The rallies are longer, matches are longer. Can you imagine Djokovic against Nadal with only one serve? They'd still be playing! I was always quick to defend the likes of Sampras and Becker and Ivanisevic - guys who still had the belief and quality to hit a first serve on the line even when they were break point down. The serve also sets up the rest of the rally, so I simply don't think this suggestion would improve our game.
Hi Barry, Do you think there will ever be an ATP Tour event played in Singapore? The biggest event played in Singapore over the last 12 years was in 1999. I was fortunate enough to watch you play in that event. Best regards, Adrian Suckling
BARRY REPLIES: Hi Adrian - good to hear from you! There is a lot of money in the Asian market, so I guess you never know, but the big worry would be whether the crowds would turn out to support it. You can never say never because in recent years we've seen tournaments in Mumbai, Chennai, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok, where Murray won, but it would need someone to invest heavily to get a tournament up and running. I remember playing in Singapore for two reasons - firstly it was incredibly hot, and secondly because it was the first place that I met Laura Robson, who was a ball girl at the time. At that time she was living in Singapore.