By Christopher Clarey / New York Times News Service
INDIAN WELLS, California—For a man who has, in his own mind, not yet completed his comeback, Roger Federer is faring rather well.
After winning the Australian Open and his 18th Grand Slam singles title in January, Federer, 35, breezed through a storm watch of a draw in Indian Wells without losing a set to win the season’s second significant tournament.
His 6-4, 7-5 victory over his Swiss compatriot Stan Wawrinka in Sunday’s final of the BNP Paribas Open was only the latest completed chapter in a season that Federer himself was calling a “fairy tale”.
Nobody else would have dreamed this up either, although Federer did have a premonition late last year, in the midst of his extended layoff because of knee problems.
“I didn’t know right away, because I’ve never been an injured guy, per se,” Federer said in an interview. “But I realized by October what an opportunity it was to be injured and what it could mean for the rest of my career. I didn’t think it was going to be this beautiful, but I’ll take it.”
If there had been any wood in the room where he was speaking, Federer might have considered knocking on it. Things have certainly broken his way as the two dominant forces in men’s tennis—Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray—are fighting their bodies and, perhaps, the toll of recent accomplishments.
Federer dodged another threat here when the talented, unpredictable young Australian Nick Kyrgios retired with an illness before their quarterfinal, giving Federer an extra day’s rest.
Djokovic and Murray lost early in Indian Wells, and they have withdrawn from this month’s Miami Open because of right-elbow injuries.
“I’m as surprised as everybody else,” Federer said. “I did hear about Andy having some issues in Dubai already with his arm but only, like, vaguely.”
Federer said Wawrinka had mentioned to him that Murray’s arm was bothering him when Wawrinka and Murray trained together in Dubai.
“Look, it takes its toll,” Federer said of the grueling men’s game. “It’s going to be interesting who picks it up faster of the two guys—Novak or Andy—now.”
For the moment, Federer is the one heading to Miami as the favorite and the one setting a torrid 2017 pace. He has said that he would not consider his comeback complete until after Miami. He has also said that his goal when he returned to the tour after a six-month layoff was to be ranked in the top eight at the end of Wimbledon in July.
But it is time for some new blueprints. He will be ranked No. 6 on Monday, one spot ahead of Rafael Nadal, his longtime rival whom he has beaten twice already this season. Federer also leads the 2017 points race by a huge margin over Nadal and Wawrinka.
“It’s great, but you definitely have to reassess your goals maybe now and see, where do you go from here?” Federer said. “Because this was not part of the plan, to win Australia and Indian Wells, I can tell you that.”
It has been a season of big surprises, and the women’s final that preceded Federer and Wawrinka produced another one when Elena Vesnina won the first big singles title of her long career by coming back from 1-4 down in the second set to defeat her fellow Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova, 6-7 (6), 7-5, 6-4, in a test of endurance and nerve that lasted three hours and two minutes.
Vesnina, 30, definitely earned this unexpected title, defeating Angelique Kerber, Venus Williams and Kuznetsova—all Grand Slam singles champions—by playing consistently aggressive tennis on a court where playing conditions were quick in this year’s unusually intense heat.
After reaching the final, she called 30 “the new 20”, and she is no doubt onto something, given that all the singles finalists here and at the Australian Open were 30 or older.
“The physical fitness and recovery is really on a different level now,” said Vesnina, the No. 14 seed. “Everybody’s taking care of their health, about what they’re eating, same with Svetlana. She really change her diet, I think, for last couple years. Me, as well. I’m more healthy eating than when I was 17, 19 years old.”
She added: “I think all these little things, that makes the difference.”
Federer’s fifth title in Indian Wells made him the oldest man to win a Masters 1000 singles title, surpassing Andre Agassi, who was 34 when he won in Cincinnati in 2004.
Federer also has beaten Wawrinka twice this season and in 20 of their 23 matches overall. Wawrinka, for all his improvement and for all the tactical acumen of his coach, Magnus Norman, has still never beaten Federer on any surface other than clay.
Their paths and careers are particularly intertwined. They have won Olympic doubles gold and the Davis Cup together and continue to share the services of the fitness trainer Pierre Paganini. But the emotions can still get raw, as they did in defeat for Wawrinka as he teared up as he received his trophy last Sunday afternoon.
He looked over to see Federer laughing at him and then jokingly responded by using a vulgarity to describe him. Federer later explained that he was only laughing because he was trying to cheer Wawrinka up and keep the mood light at a heavy moment.
“I guess I achieved that,” Federer said.
It has been a season of achievements, big and small, and to watch Federer at this moment in the sun is to see a champion moving and swinging freely, be it the first point or match point, which he won with a forehand volley on Sunday.
“Stan missed a first serve and then it was second serve, step in and stay aggressive, come to the net and finish,” Federer said. “You vision it, and you do it. And it’s so simple, and when you can’t play that way, everything becomes so complex. I know I’m riding a wave right now.”
He added: “I think as long as the body is this way and I can remind myself, don’t play with fear and don’t play with too much pressure and don’t try to do well, I’ll be able to play like this. But the body needs to be there so the mind will follow.”
Image credits: AP