x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Not an easy road for Federer

The Swiss maestro has a record-breaking 15th slam in his sights, but he faces tough competition from Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic.

Roger Federer's chances of lifting a 15th Grand Slam has been boosted by Rafael Nadal pulling out of Wimbledon this week, but he still has a large contingent of players gunning for him this fortnight.
Roger Federer's chances of lifting a 15th Grand Slam has been boosted by Rafael Nadal pulling out of Wimbledon this week, but he still has a large contingent of players gunning for him this fortnight.

LONDON // Emotions always run high during Wimbledon fortnight but this year's men's championship promises to be a real tear-jerker if, as looks probable, Roger Federer and Andy Murray turn out to be the dominant forces. A final between the Swiss maestro and the emerging Scottish force is a guaranteed blockbuster to follow what was an epic conclusion to the tournament a year ago, when the five-time champion Federer was eventually deposed by a superb Rafael Nadal.

With world No 1 Nadal unfortunately unable to defend his hard-earned title, the stage is set for either Federer to make history with a record-breaking 15th grand slam or Murray to end an embarrassingly long craving of 63 years by the home nation to salute one of their own as men's champion. Either way, the tournament is bound to be the winner but nothing can be taken for granted on the lawns of the All England Club and there are countless threats to that dream scenario lying in wait over the next fortnight.

Federer expressed "sadness" that Nadal is no longer a threat. That utterance, even from such a respected figure as the world No 2, takes some believing. A fully fit Nadal would probably have prevented Federer fulfilling his ambition to complete a career Grand Slam at Roland Garros earlier this month; a fully-fit Nadal denied Federer a fourth Australian Open title in January and a fully-fit Nadal would have been the favourite to triumph again here.

Federer disclosed that he suspected Nadal was going to withdraw before the official announcement on Friday night and reflected: "It's disappointing that there can't be a repeat of last year's final. We've had some wonderful matches over the years - he's my main rival." So, who takes over that main rival mantle from the Spaniard - Murray, whom Federer defeated in last year's US Open final, or Novak Djokovic, the Serbian who beat Federer on the way to winning last year's Australian Open?

Federer chose not to go too deeply into that subject as he prepares to understudy Nadal as the defending champion and open the proceedings on Centre Court this afternoon. "I always knew that Andy was going to be one of the toughest to beat on grass next to Rafa and Djokovic," said Federer, who pointed out that "there are so many other guys around who are dangerous and up-and-coming". Those include the physically imposing Argentine Juan Martin Del Potro, who gave him such a scare in the semi-finals of the French Open, and recent grand slam finalists Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, of France, Chile's Fernando Gonzalez and Sweden's Robin Soderling.

But it is Murray who Federer probably fears most of all. The British No 1 has been making steady advances since missing much of the 2007 season with a serious wrist injury and is surely on the verge of a maiden grand slam success. Those who suggested that breakthrough was more likely to come on the hard courts of New York or Melbourne rather than the turf of London are reconsidering that view after Murray stormed through the traditional warm-up tournament at neighbouring Queen's Club without dropping a set.

That was Murray's fourth title of a year which began in Abu Dhabi where he defeated Federer and Nadal to win a thrilling six-man exhibition. The Scot will be pleased that Nadal, who thrashed him in the quarter-finals here last year, has been removed from his half of the draw, leaving him to plot a course towards Federer, against whom he holds a splendid 6-2 winning record. wjohnson@thenational.ae