THE AGE old saying of new year new you is one that has been said countless times across the globe in the last fortnight – well everywhere but the Federer household you can imagine.
While the passing of one year into the next gives millions of people worldwide the drive and motivation to improve their lives, to turn them round, to take control of them even, one 36-year-old Swiss man breaks the mold.
Roger Federer is not your every man and it will be on him that the eyes of the world will be focused over the next 14 days as he looks to take home a 20th major of what has been an illustrious career to date. Not that the progression of Federer is all the Australian Open has to offer.
Once seen as the little brother when it came to the four majors in tennis, the Open has become the standalone giant it was always meant to be – with the attendances to back it up. With a faster rising attendance figure than the US Open over the last 20 years the first major of the year has become one that is rightly coveted by the best in the world – hence why the interest in Federer.
He begins the defence of his crown against lowly Aljaž Bedene, a tie that many are predicting he wins easy. He is doing it on the back of his most successful year since 2009 – and at a time when questions were being asked about his desire and hunger.
True that success happened when the bodies of Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic were stating to let them down. But his success showed why the mind of Federer was as strong as the muscle of the others in what has been dubbed the fab-four of tennis as he has gone from strength to strength and that has allowed him to regain his place as the man to beat when it comes to the biggest competitions.
How far he goes this time could once again depend on the health of his opponents as much as the ability that the Swiss legend has with a racquet as question marks once again hang over the likes of Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Stan Wawrinka and Milos Raonic – and that’s without Murray who has not even made the draw.
Djokovic and Wawrinka – who won six titles in a row in Melbourne between them from 2011 to 2016 – are a particular threat if they can stay fit – but that is a big IF, if the recent past is anything to go by.
All arrows point to history being made down under then, with Federer the favourite to lift the trophy and become the first man in history to make it to 20 majors – but in what has been dubbed the returning major, with all the big contenders getting back on to the court – his success is anything but guaranteed.
If he does go back-to-back he will not be joined in his victory by fellow 2017 champion Serena Williams as the fellow 36-year-old star decided at the beginning of the month that the Open was too big a task to take on right now.
Williams, who won the Ladies title at the 2017 event, was seven weeks pregnant with her first child Olympia when she achieved her success last year, but after playing her first match since the birth of said child only last week, Williams opted out of defending her crown – and as a result it is the first time since back in 2011 that the first Major of the year will be taking place without her there.
That leaves the field open in terms of who will succeed her, with Simona Halep tipped to finally break her duck and take home a grand-slam title. Whoever does take that title, be it in the mens or ladies side of the draw, they will need to have one thing going for them – mental toughness.
Back in 2011 Judy Murray, mother to former world number one Andy and his doubles champion brother Jamie, talked about the mental strength needed for tennis players to succeed. She told the BBC:
“Mental toughness is what separates the ones at the top. There are a lot of good players out there, but it’s only the tough that survive.”
You can see why. In a game defined by one-on-one battles, battles that are fought in the mind as much as the court, negativity becomes as much an enemy as your opponent.
Former Wimbledon champion Leyton Hewitt explained more. He said:
“A tennis champion is someone that can focus and deal with adversity and the ups and downs of a match. There are only one or two points that can turn a match, so you have to be able to handle the positives and negatives of what happens out there.”
History is littered with examples of those who had the game, but not the mind to succeed, those who lacked the strength where they needed it the most in order to climb the summit that is individual success in a sporting arena. That is why the Australian Open was not one that many opted to endure in years gone by.
Players did not go into the tournament in form, the winter break did not allow them to. It was a reason why the likes of John McEnroe did not always see the tournament as a priority. Tennis players, like most sportsmen and women, love momentum, they thrive of it. If they are winning and feeling good then the games cannot come fast enough. Playing once a day is not enough, let the matches come thick and fast.
But, the flip side is a player out of form, or out of practice. It is a different thought pattern needed when you are trying to get yourself going, or out of a blip. It is one of the reasons why the first title of the year is often the hardest. Not that you will find the competition lacking as a consequence. In the male and female tours there are players crying out to be heard after more than a decade of domination on both sides.
As mentioned above the fab-four of Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray are all the wrong side of 30. They won 46 out of a possible 51 titles and their struggles with fitness, if not form, mean that there is a mantle there to be taken.
Many are tipping German youngster Alexander Zverev to lead the charge when it comes to filling that gap – and tennis needs it filled if it wants to avoid the Tiger Woods comparison in golf. After dominating for the best part of a decade the golfing world is still waiting for someone to take over from the much maligned former World number one for sponsorship as well as competition purposes.
Tennis wants to avoid that same fate, those same questions of who is next, and if Alexander Zverev can make 2018 the year that he starts to fulfil his potential, the future of the mens game will look a lot brighter moving forward.
As for the ladies game there is a certain mirror imagery with that of the mens, albeit it one name rather than four has stood alone in years gone by.
At 36 – and with a family of her own now, Serena Williams may not be the same titanic force she has been in the past, and what a force she has been. Racking up 23 grand-slam singles titles, to go along with 14 successes in the doubles and four Olympic Gold medals, Williams has simply dominated the sport for the best part of 20-years.
True there have been those who have challenged her during that time, but not enough, could the winding down of Williams see the time of her rival Sharapova? There are many who hope not.
There are other, less controversial, WTA players who can make the top, the likes of Johanna Konta, Karolina Pliskova and the likes of Caroline Wozniacki come to mind, one of them has to really push the boat out, though, as tennis needs its next big superstar – in both the sexes.
That could end up being the biggest question in the sport over the next 12-months, who pushes through to make themselves a dominant force in that time. Just don’t count on them doing it during the Australian Open – not if Roger Federer has anything to do with it anyway…