ABU DHABI // While the majority of people will enjoy an extended excursion to slumberland this morning, world No 1 Roger Federer, who faces Robin Soderling in the semi-final of the Capitala World Tennis Championship this afternoon, will be making the most of every spare minute he gets.
Yesterday morning, the Swiss maestro, having driven to Abu Dhabi from Dubai, found himself standing on the steaming hot tarmac of Yas Marina Circuit. He and rival Rafael Nadal posed for promotional pictures and knocked balls back and forth, before heading to Zayed Sports City for further Capitala commitments. After hosting two training clinics for local tennis enthusiasts, Federer appeared in front of a media scrum - alongside Nadal, Nikolay Davydenko, David Ferrer, Robin Soderling and Stanislas Warwrinka - to be quizzed on everything from Andre Agassi's recent revelations ("Of course, it is disappointing to hear and has cast a big shadow over his career, but we should remember all the great things he did for our sport") to his thoughts on Emirati tennis ("I think it would be great to see Asia and the Middle East have more players ... the grassroots programmes and federations are helping support the talent here").
The 15-time major winner was later greeted by more than 100 adoring fans, who had lined up for more than 30 minutes to have their hero sign an autograph for them. This weekend's tournament may officially be a pre-season exhibition, but Federer is in little doubt his year has started early. "The off-season was short this year - short and sweet," said the 28-year-old, who officially finished 2009 in late November with a semi-final defeat to Davydenko at London's ATP World Finals. "But, for us, a month off is a lot.
"For some people, yes, it is only four weeks, but if we get two weeks off and then practise for two weeks we are very happy people and we are ready to go for another few months. We might get another few weeks off down the road, but it is obviously important to get in shape ahead of the first grand slam of the season." The Australian Open starts on January 18 and all six players are hoping to use Abu Dhabi as an early indicator of where their game is, as well as providing them with a timely confidence boost.
"The aim is to play well here, then go over there in good form. Some of the players have been on the road already and want to keep that going and this event offers the perfect opportunity for us to do that," said Federer, who won at Wimbledon last summer to reclaim the world No 1 ranking, a position he had previously held for a record 237 consecutive weeks. He knows, however, his job is getting tougher - and his ranking more vulnerable. Only 3,765 points separate Federer and world No 5 Juan Martin del Potro, of Argentina.
"With the ranking system we have, everything can change in a second. If you can't play Wimbledon, for instance, like Rafa [experienced] last year, you lose 2,000 points. Then if someone else wins, that is a 4,000-point swing, so you can imagine how much pressure there is, week in week out, for the players. "Rafa has had to deal with injuries and I have had a bit of struggles with sickness and injuries and missed or lost a few matches when other people have won tournaments as well, so I definitely think a lot of the players coming up, including the players here, don't make it any easier."
Nadal, who appeared uncharacteristically subdued having arrived in the capital late on Wednesday night, said the competitive field is something he has always been acutely aware of and appreciates that any professional player, on his day, can defeat anybody; nobody is unbeatable. "I always had this feeling," said the Spaniard. "In earlier years, when I would see the draw, I wouldn't just be watching for Roger, I was thinking about everyone because there were lot of good players.
"In the last year, maybe we have seen a few more than before, but there has always been good competition and everyone has always had a chance to win." firstname.lastname@example.org Robin Soderling v Roger Federer, 3pm David Ferrer v Rafael Nadal, 5pm