The Swiss has played 20 fewer matches less than his Spanish rival in 2017 as they prepare for the final grand slam of the season in New York.
Rest and smart scheduling behind Roger Federer being on verge of going to world No 1 at US Open at expense of Rafael Nadal
Resting away from the action last week, Roger Federer will probably have allowed himself a sly smirk when he saw the consequence of the wet weather early in the week at the Cincinnati Masters.
A backlog of matches at a tournament, which the world No 3 had been due to play in before he tweaked his back in losing to Alexander Zverev in the Canadian Open, meant that top seed Rafael Nadal and the majority of the field had to play twice on the same day on Friday.
It had been surprising, given how carefully managed Federer’s schedule has been in 2017, that he had agreed to play Montreal and Cincinnati back-to-back, so in hindsight, given how the Cincinnati schedule worked out, it was a blessing for the 36-year-old Swiss that he had an extra week to recuperate before the US Open, which begins on Monday.
The focus of Federer’s year has been the grand slams, and it has paid off spectacularly as he has enjoyed his best season since 2009; he has two majors to his name already: the Australian Open and Wimbledon.
Now a number of milestones are awaiting him if he can win a record sixth US Open title (in the Open era) when the final takes place at Flushing Meadows on September 10.
Winning it would take him to 20 grand slam titles, and it would be the first time in 10 years that he has won three majors in the same calender year.
It would also underline that he is the best player in the world again right now, as victory would send him back to the top of the rankings for the first time since October 2012. Success in New York for the first time in nine years will be the icing of the cake of what will go down as one of Federer’s finest years.
Roger Federer's US Open record
2016 Did not play
2013 Fourth round
2003 Fourth round
2002 Fourth round
2001 Fourth round
2000 Third round
Maybe he is not playing quite at the peak he was between 2004 and 2007, when he won 11 of the 16 majors played, but Federer’s accomplishments in 2017 stack up against his peak years.
He won the Australian Open in January, beating Kei Nishikori, Stan Wawrinka and Nadal in five-set matches along the way.
He did not drop a set on his way to winning Wimbledon, the first time that had been accomplished in 41 years, and he has also won ATP 1000 titles at Indian Wells and Miami.
Nadal, rightly, took centre stage this week as his own renaissance in reaching world No 1 again was achieved, but it does feel as if he is keeping the spot warm for Federer, especially given his lukewarm form on hard courts of late.
It would have been understandable if Nadal had blamed fatigue for his quarter-final loss to Nick Kyrgios in Cincinnati. Firstly, as it was his second game of the day, but also it was his 58th of the year.
Federer has played 20 matches less this year, with an impressive 35-3 win-loss record.
Only Andy Murray (35) and Wawrinka (37), who have both been hampered by injuries in 2017, are the only players in the top 10 to have played less matches than.
A mixture of great play on court and a judicious approach to handling his schedule have been key to why Federer is in the position he is.
He had a quiet start to the year, not playing any of the warm-up tournaments before the Australian Open, and then chose to sit out the clay-court season, reasoning on his weakest surface that success was going to be hard to come by. Why tire himself out with Wimbledon just around the corner?
To put Federer’s schedule into context, in 2015, his last full season given that he played on 28 times in an injury-hit 2016, he had played 52 times before the US Open. In 2014 he played 56 matches, both substantially more than this year.
Federer is in amazing shape right now, especially when you think the majority of his illustrious predecessors were long retired by the age of 36, but one of the key things for Federer is that he has been smart enough to pick and choose his tournaments, prioritising events he has a better chance of winning.
It will be interesting to see if his rivals take heed of this. Even before their injury issues this year, both Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic looked to be suffering from burn out, with the pair having played 87 and 74 matches each in 2016 respectively.
After the US Open there will be 18 weeks until the first major of 2018, the Australian Open, and what Federer does in that time will be fascinating.
Given he has no ranking points to defend until Melbourne, a busy and productive end to 2017 could earn him a huge amount of points and a big enough lead at the top to guarantee he stays there for most of 2018.
But, that would be ignoring the approach that has got him back to being the current dominant force in men’s tennis, and strong favourite to prevail in New York.
Federer’s eyes, as he completes final preparations for the US Open and tomorrow’s draw, will be simply on winning major No 20.
It is unlikely he has thought too far beyond that, but he should not completely ignore the importance of rest and recovery that has been a key part of his superb season, and which could push him on to even more success in 2018.