Roger Federer: 3 Men Fed-Ex Doesn't Want to Face in His Draw

Glenn VallachContributor IIIJanuary 16, 2012

Roger Federer: 3 Men Fed-Ex Doesn't Want to Face in His Draw

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    Now that the 2012 Australian Open is under way, it's time to stop complaining about the draws and time to start worrying about them.

    What potential early round upset is stressing you out?

    Who do you not want your hero to meet in the quarters?

    Which top seed are you hoping fails early so that your favorite has it easy late?

    For fans of Roger Federer, a man who has made the semi-finals or better in 27 of the last 30 majors, a draw analysis hardly stops at the first few rounds.  In fact, most Fed fans will tell you that, upon the release of the brackets on Friday, the first thing they checked was who's half of the draw Roger landed in: Novak Djokovic's or Rafael Nadal's?

    After that, they probably nervously clicked to see the next highest seed in his quarter.

    It was only after digesting Roger's most likely quarterfinal and semifinal opponents that they began to examine the nuances of Roger's round-by-round path to major title number 17.

    Who are the highest hurdles in the Swiss great's way down in Melbourne?

    Roger's already through to the second round after dispatching qualifier Alexander Kudryavtsev in straights, so let's take a look at three men that Fed won't want to run into down the road in his march to the final.

3. Bernard Tomic

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    One of the most intriguing names in a relatively tame draw for Roger is Bernard Tomic, the precocious pride of Australia.

    Currently ranked 38th in the world, the 6'5" 19-year-old possesses the skills and athleticism to become the game's next great.  

    John McEnroe recently pegged him as the most promising member of tennis' "next generation," a crop of young talent that includes Tomic, Milos Raonic, Grigor Dmitrov and Ryan Harrison, to name a few.  

    Along with Raonic, Tomic seems to be the best candidate of the group to make his splash sooner than later.  He's already taken a set off of both Federer and Novak Djokovic in the five set format, and he defeated the fifth ranked Robin Soderling at Wimbledon last year.  He's even begun receiving unsolicited criticism of his training regimen from former greats, including Rod Laver and Pat Rafter—a sure sign that he's on the brink of relevance.

    Perhaps the attribute that could help Tomic the most in a potential fourth rounder against Federer is his confidence.  One of the hardest things about beating an all-time great at a slam is finding the belief that you can pull it off.  

    Tomic won't have that problem.  You can tell by the way the Aussie confidently strolls around the court that he won't think twice about knocking a legend out of a major.  He's almost brash in demeanor.  If he gets close enough, Tomic will believe.

    A year ago, Tomic smoked Feliciano Lopez to set up an ultra prime-time third round match against Rafael Nadal.  All of Australia seemed to stop for the battle under the lights.  Still 18 at the time, you wouldn't have blamed Tomic for coming in as tight as a drum.  After all, we've seen guys a heck of a lot more experienced than Bernard wilt against Rafa in big spots.  

    But Tomic acquitted himself well, even racing out to a 4-0 lead in the second set.  Rafa's game eventually proved too much for Tomic, but the occasion certainly didn't intimate him.  Add a year of training, experience and maturation to the Aussie, and he may prove to be that much more formidable this time around.

    And how about the way he coolly overcame a two-set deficit against veteran Fernando Verdasco in the first round?  This is a teenage kid who's had his face splattered all over the papers for days now, and he won three sets on the brink of elimination like it was nothing.  You'd have thought Verdasco was the nervous one last night.

    The second thing the Australian has going for him is, of course, his game.  He doesn't face the disadvantage in athleticism that most do against the greats.  He's long and solid enough to absorb power, and surprisingly nimble for his size.  

    He also plays in such an unconventional fashion that it tends to throw his opponents off rhythm.  His off-paced ground strokes can sap the power out of a rally, and his quirky shot selection will keep you guessing.  He's willing and able to try any shot at any time.  He can defend and attack.  

    In a way, he almost reminds you of Federer: he's confident, smooth, and got a bag full of tricks.

    Go back and re-watch him blasting Soderling out of SW19 last year, or his subsequent four-set grind against Djokovic.  For two and a half sets, he gave an on-top-of-his-game Nole all he could handle.  Simply put, his game won't be outclassed by anyone, it's too polished and diverse. 

    Tomic won't have to work hard to win the crowd over, either.  He's the top-ranked Australian trying to become the first Aussie man to win in Melbourne since 1976.  Federer will always have a troop of supporters, but the crowd in Rod Laver will gravitate towards Tomic if an upset starts to brew.

    Of course, Tomic has his shortcomings.  His light hitting can render him vulnerable at times, and he certainly doesn't possess the elite firepower of a Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Tomas Berdych or Robin Soderling, three big guys who've knocked Federer out of a major of late.  

    He has stretches of effective aggression, but lacks that killer shot or combination of shots that can take over a match.  He's even been labeled a pusher by some cynics.  The match would probably be firmly on Federer's racquet, a comfortable place for the Swiss.

    Further, Tomic's path to Federer isn't exactly a cupcake.  He's already had to play a five-setter, and he may need to conquer both Sam Querrey and Alexandr Dolgopolov in rounds two and three just to get to Roger.  It would be an accomplishment if Tomic even made that far at his age.  

    But considering the completeness of Tomic's game, you'd have to figure Roger would prefer to face someone other than the 19-year-old in the Round of 16.

2. Juan Martin Del Potro

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    When nervous Federer fans clicked onto his quarter draw for the first time on Friday, you can bet they were a little relieved when they saw Mardy Fish's name resting atop the third quarter bracket.  

    The improving, but limited, American is the second highest seed in the quarter, and if all holds to form, you'd have to assume Roger would feel pretty comfortable against him in the quarters.

    But anxiety must have kicked back in for Fed fans as their eyes darted down the draw, for uber-talented Juan Martin del Potro represents the third highest seed in the section.

    Roger fans know full well the capabilities of the giant Argentinian.  Del Potro dealt Federer one of the most painful losses of his career when he twice came back from a set down to stun Roger in a five-set classic in the 2009 U.S. Open final.  You can't blame Fed fans for thinking that their hero let one slip away that day, as he was in complete control of the match, up a set and a break late in the second, when he got a little too casual and gave del Potro some life.  

    Once back in the match, del Potro started firing away, and instead of slicing and chipping away at Juan Martin's power, Roger ill-advisedly tried to out-slug the Argentine.  Before long, del Potro was making Roger look slow and weak, blasting absurd forehands past the Swiss Maestro at an alarming rate.  

    Even so, Roger still came tantalizingly close to his sixth U.S. Open championship, closing to within two points of the title multiple times at the end of the fourth set.  But del Potro held his nerve, stretched the tilt to five and outlasted a tired Federer for his first slam.

    This wasn't the only time Fed fans were treated to del Potro's talents, either.  He gave them the scare of a life time at the 2009 French Open, where he almost ended Fed's dream of a career grand slam in a five set semi-final.  He also beat Roger at the 2009 World Tour Finals.

    There's little doubt that, when healthy and in form, del Potro is one of the very best in the world.  His serve, though not the best in the game, can be an absolute weapon if clicking.  His forehand is devastating, a point ender from all parts of the court.  

    His two-handed backhand is reliable and fluid, and if he really has things working, he can club it cross court for winners.  His power from the ground is, on the whole, elite.  Federer's on record as saying he's the hardest hitter on tour.

    But he's not the plodding giant you might think, either.  He's actually quite quick and fast, and when he has everything working, he has no apparent weaknesses.

    In addition, his road to Roger seems manageable.  It looks like smooth sailing to the Round of 16, with no big name challengers to speak of in his first three brackets.   Then, if things go according to seeds, he'd play the eminently beatable Fish in the fourth round.

    Let's not pencil the Argentinian into the quarters just yet, though.  He's made strides, but still hasn't rebounded to his 2009 form after badly injuring his wrist two years ago.  His forehand doesn't seem quite as penetrating as it used to be, and you have to wonder if he's holding back a bit for fear of re-injury.

    He put up a nice fight against Rafa at Wimbledon last year, and took a set off of Djokovic at Roland Garros.  He also battled valiantly against David Ferrer and Rafa in the Davis Cup finals.  

    But he still hasn't made that leap back into grand slam contention, losing several bad matches to inferior opponents, including James Blake, Marcel Granollers, Gilles Simon, Marin Cilic and Ernests Gulbis, throughout 2011.  Those guys are good, but del Potro should beat them at his best.

    He even looked sloppy and out of it at times in his first round win against Adrian Mannarino last night.  So far, this doesn't' seem like the del Potro who broke Federer's heart on Arthur Ashe three years ago.

    But, considering his sky-high ceiling, and his ability to blast anyone off the court, Federer would surely prefer to face anyone else in the quarters.

1. Rafael Nadal

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    Forget the draw, is there anyone on earth that Roger wants face less in a big match than Rafael Nadal?

    You have to wonder about Fed's gut reaction upon first hearing that he had finally landed on the opposite side of the draw from Novak Djokovic.

    Was it relief that he had avoided Djokovic, a hard-court master and currently the best player in the world?  Or did doubts re-emerge about his long-time tormentor Nadal waiting for him in the semis?

    That's the problem with being number three in the world, it's either a rock or a hard place in the final four.  There's no landing Andy Murray in the semis.

    Still, while Federer certainly has some match point demons to deal with against Djokovic, the emotional baggage is heavier with Nadal.  The Spaniard crushed Roger at Wimbledon in 2008, demoralized him in Melbourne in 2009 and has never given an inch at Roland Garros.

    Nadal leads the head-to-head match up 17-9 and would enter the semifinal with an enormous psychological advantage.

    Obviously, the problem for Roger against Rafa lies more than just in between the ears.  We all know that Rafa's heavy cross-court forehand eats up Roger's one-handed backhand, and, unfortunately for the Swiss Great, Rafa isn't exactly shy about harkening this advantage.

    Rafa's incredible defense also bothers Roger.  You can tell that Fed gets impatient as Rafa returns would-be winners over and over again.  Eventually, Federer goes for too much, and Rafa has another point in his pocket. 

    Rafa's game of fetch doesn't bother Djokovic as much, as the Serb goes about his aggression in a much more controlled, conservative fashion.

    Of course, Roger faces some of the same problems against Djokovic.  Nole can drive Fed batty with his backboard-like defense too, and he clearly begins to wear the Maestro down as their matches reach hours two and three.  But Djokovic's game doesn't pose as much of an inherent match up problem for Roger. 

    Fed deals with Nole's flat pace much better than he does Rafa's heavy spin, and it seems like Roger's found a way to use Djokovic's superhuman quickness against him.  Instead of shooting for the open court and testing the Serb's speed, Roger often hits the ball behind Djokovic as he tries to sprint his way back into the point, repeatedly wrong-footing the Djoker for winners. 

    For some reason, Fed hasn't figured out a way to use this tactic as effectively against Nadal.

    And forgive Fed fans if they aren't exactly buoyed by Roger's recent demolition of Rafa in the World Tour Finals.  They've seen this movie before, and it's one about court surface.  Roger loves indoor hard and Rafa hates it, a dichotomy that has helped Fed compile a 4-0 record against Rafa at the YECs. 

    When the roof comes off, Roger is only 1-4 against Rafa on hard courts.  The ball moves a little slower and bounces a little higher outside, a fine recipe for the Spaniard.

    For proof, look no further than last year's turn of events.  Roger outclassed Rafa in the 2010 WTF finals, only to get mercilessly romped by Nadal a few months later in Miami.  Considering the courts in Melbourne are outside, and relatively slow, advantage Rafa.

    On top of all this, Rafa's path to the semis is manageable.  He has Tommy Haas, the oldest man on tour, in the second round, either Donald Young or Lucas Lacko in the third and the best of John Isner, David Nalbandian, Flavio Cipolla and Feliciano Lopez in the fourth.  Very doable. 

    His main threat lies on the opposite side of the quarter in heavy hitting Tomas Berdych, but one would assume Rafa will outrun the big Czech if it comes down to it.

    Roger will never admit it, but you'd imagine he's hoping that, if he finds his way into the semis, he won't be walking into a Spanish Bull ring.