Let's be honest: when Roger Federer enters a tournament, regardless of tier or competition, he fully expects to be holding the trophy on championship Sunday. So it will always be for true legends of any sport. Without that unbending belief and heart, they would not retain any colloquial title with the words "king" or "greatest-of-all-time" splashed before their names.
Federer plays his first match since the Australian Open on Wednesday at the Rotterdam Open against world-ranked No.64 Grega Zemlja of Slovenia. It's a tournament where he's been largely successful in the past, though maybe not to his lofty standards, winning twice before, including last year.
While the tennis world evaluates and scrutinizes Rafael Nadal's every move in his first tournaments back on the ATP World Tour after seven months away from the game with injury—and anyone who isn't following his comeback is carefully placing their bets on whether Novak Djokovic or Andy Murray will fare best as the season rolls onward—Federer's immediate efforts seem to have almost gone undetected.
In the Swiss' case, a 2013 title defense of his win at the ABN AMRO World Tennis Tournament in Rotterdam last year could prove to cement his status as tennis' "Maestro" yet again, conducting the springtime stretch of the season gingerly from an uncharacteristically darkened podium on center stage.
More precisely, center stage can be a deceiving thing if the spotlight isn't on you; if anything, the role becomes that of a puppet master rather than a conductor. Federer, at 31 years old, could attain this position with meticulous tennis in the next month.
This week's ATP World Tour 500 event in Rotterdam is not wrought with particularly intense opposition, and is the perfect breeding ground for Federer to quietly improve his form at larger venues looming in the near future, giving himself big opportunities to add to his legacy and his hardware cabinet.
Djokovic vs. Murray, Beaten and Bruised
Federer's semifinal finish at the Australian Open this year is what most odds makers had expected. It was the solid, consistent performance that anyone who has seen the Fed Express play in the last decade would glance at and take for granted—albeit unfortunately—given the assumption of prolific poetry-in-motion every time he steps on a court.
But it was also a good place for the Swiss to land following the Aussie Open, if he couldn't have the title of course. After taking Great Britain's Murray to five sets, but failing to convert on the momentum from his magical fightback in the fourth set to the final one, he showed tennis fans that he still had what it takes to fight off the rest of the "big four," despite being from an older generation of tennis players.
Though he is an international status symbol, the key for Federer to achieve covert winning patterns is stealthiness: he must allow Djokovic and Murray to feel and, for all intents and purposes, appear to the media and fans that they are alone on center stage.
Though known for his humble nature and innate fairness (as evidenced by his record eight Stefan Edberg Sportsmanship Awards as voted for by players on the tour), it has always proved to be a difficult task for Roger Federer, a man often considered to be the greatest tennis player to have ever lived, to mitigate his title chances anywhere he plays. But Federer and his team are intelligent, and incredibly media-savvy, and the best decision they can make is to step as far away from the limelight as possible for a figure as widely known as he.
As Djokovic and Murray feel the pressure that Federer and Nadal felt years ago when they were expected to do battle in every final at every tournament, Federer has an opening to sneak up on them with a plethora of experience at handling the mental fatigue that a fervent press and fan base produces.
For both 25 year olds (Djokovic and Murray), the burden placed on them to live up to media hype has been their undoing in the past, and the ensuing questions sniffing at even a mere hint of bending willpower (no matter how slight) between the two of them is something that Federer needs to address with utmost patience so that he may ultimately reap the benefits. In the end, taking the proverbial backseat may be Fed's best choice.
Why doesn't the renowned Spaniard Nadal share this sentiment?
Grabbing The Bull By The Horns, Finally
Rafael Nadal fell to Horatio Zeballos, ranked 73rd in the world, this past Sunday in the final of the Chile Open, an ATP World Tour 250 event, for only his 20th loss on clay. Ever.
For his first tournament back after seven months away from tennis with a left knee injury, making the finals of both the singles and doubles—losing the singles in three tight sets and the doubles in straights—is a strong effort, but deep down we all know that it isn't the showing Rafa wanted, or the performance that his sterling career demands.
Enter Federer: While the head-to-head is daunting in itself for the Swiss Maestro at 10–18 in his career versus Spain's Raging Bull, it's the 12–2 clay court match mark in favor of Nadal that is truly disheartening for Federer. But, not this year.
Understanding that Nadal is currently not at his best, and weeks away from serious contention at bigger events like the hard and clay court Master 1000s, Federer can seize the opportunity when the clay court season begins in April to rectify close losses on the dirt to Nadal. Think of Nadal's win over Federer in an epic five hour final at the Rome Masters in 2006, 6–7(0), 7–6(5), 6–4, 2–6, 7–6(5), which could have easily gone the way of the Swiss in the fifth set tiebreak (Federer actually won more total points in the match and boasted better break point conversion).
Though victory over Nadal on the red clay would not have the same resounding significance now as it would have prior to his long injury break, it could act as a catalyst for a rise in Federer's confidence come the major summertime swing.
How Does Rotterdam Factor In?
Though the field only includes three other members of the Top 10 — one of which has already been eliminated in Jo-Wilfried Tsonga by another local player, Igor Sijsling — Rotterdam remains an important stepping stone for Federer as he continues to gain match practice on the season and play into sharper form.
The likes of Richard Gasquet and Juan Martin Del Potro will be Federer's biggest threats this week, but given his favorable draw and current form, they'll more than likely be hard-pressed to stop Switzerland's most successful tennis player ever from capturing a third title at the Ahoy Rotterdam sporting arena.
There are three considerations that are important to note here. The first is Federer's diminished 2013 playing schedule, which has been discussed at length both by the man himself in press conferences and the media alike. With fewer tournaments being played than in years past (he's cut four official ATP events), it becomes crucial that Federer performs his best at each and every venue.
The next consideration directly follows the first in that the Swiss has put together an incredibly wise schedule, with excellent spacing in preparation for mental and physical recovery. With this in mind, he'll be playing Rotterdam, an indoor hard court tournament that is impeccably suited for his attacking style of tennis, as a means of elaborating his game following disappointment in the semifinals of the Australian Open.
Lastly, consider Federer's winning streak this time last year, also after a semifinal result at the Aussie Open. The next stretch of three tournaments for Federer — ATP 500 level events at Rotterdam and Dubai and ultimately the Indian Wells Masters 1000 — are all places in which he thrives and owns multiple crowns, with playing conditions that allow the Swiss to rival Nadal's dominance on the European clay.
Roger won all three of them in 2012, but the eyes of the big guns in Novak, Andy and Rafa are focused squarely on different targets this time around. Instead of even-keeled urgency and passion from all of the "big four," Djokovic and Murray are at each others' throats—seemingly uninterested in old man Fed and crippled Nadal—and are attempting to shape their own earth-shattering rivalry, and Nadal is wholly concentrated on himself and his daily progress as he takes his comeback one small step at a time.
And Federer is simply Federer. The same old Federer, to be exact.
Unchanged for so many years in consistency and technique, yet improving all the time in efficiency, Roger Federer has all the right tools laid in front of him to soundlessly excel during the ATP World Tour's spring season far beyond the three upcoming hard court venues. The question is will he be cautious enough in his endeavors not to attract the full attention of the other distracted members of the big four?