Roger Federer is ready to set the tone for the rest of the year at the Dubai Tennis Championships. The speedy courts will be an ideal test for his more aggressive approach, backed by tennis coach Stefan Edberg.
Federer will be a heavy favorite to sweep aside his first three opponents. Only then will he gain a semifinal opportunity to likely face the current king of hard courts, Novak Djokovic. He needs to measure his progress heading into the springtime of tennis' most important tournaments.
The Swiss Maestro was the long-time, reigning hard-court champion, perhaps the greatest ever. He won five consecutive U.S. Open titles from 2004-08 on its fast, hard surface. He earned four Australian Open titles on Melbourne's slower Rebound Ace (2004, 2006-07) and Plexicushion (2010) hard surfaces.
It was like molding the best hard-court performances of Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi. He was both Jimi Hendrix and Mikhail Baryshnikov. His style and success were choreographed through fluid footwork, scintillating shots and original creativity. He struck baseline winners like nobody before and since.
These days, Federer is adjusting his tactics of necessity. He is 32 years old, a shade slower and less likely to grind through several younger, baseline opponents. But he still looks to take the initiative and create pressure on his opponents. Since January's tournaments in Australia, he has looked to finish more points at net and force his defensive-minded adversaries into shorter points and more difficult passes.
The Federer-Edberg approach has had good early returns. Chalk up Australian Open victims Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Andy Murray's B-level clone as evidence.
Federer's adjustments need more matches and opportunities. Unlike Edberg's approach 20 years ago, he cannot simply employ a committed formula for attacking the net. He must fine-tune a more improvisational strategy to pick and choose the best times for staying back or coming in. It's part Jimmy Connors, but with more variety. He must find the physical and cerebral balance versus lethal opponents for bigger rewards or consequences.
He has proven he can overwhelm all the B-actors of the ATP draw, but he needs more big matches to elevate his own game, troubleshoot the results and keep improving. He needs more opportunities like the 2014 Australian Open semifinal versus Rafael Nadal.
Granted, that match did not go as planned, but Nadal is a unique career obstacle. Despite Federer's positive first-set momentum, he found himself complaining to the chair umpire during a second-set changeover. It was momentary frustration, like he was unable to pull open the sealed door of his freezer to get his favorite flavor of Movenpick Ice Cream.
But this was an experience he needed. He brought out Nadal's very best tennis but knows that anything less than that could tip the balance toward his success.
King Novak Will be Waiting
Djokovic is currently the best player in the world on hard courts. He has a long way to go until we can compare his total results on all hard-court surfaces to Federer, but he has at least proven to be Federer's historical equal at the slower Australian surface.
The Serbian is the evolution of Agassi—a ball-striking expert with the athleticism and reflexes to hit any shot. He is part contortionist and part greyhound on defense, and he can turn the tables from predator to prey as if the point was his very life. He is the supreme challenge for Federer at Dubai in 2014.
That is why Federer needs to play Djokovic. Tomato cans and paper champions will not be enough to harden Federer. Strategy and hitting partners are merely theoretical. He needs to respond and think in the fires of competitive heat.
Djokovic is motivated. He is a fully developed champion, at his peak, who wants to officially reclaim his spot at the top of the rankings. He is the most consistent player in tennis, relentless and confident. He is the measuring stick for Federer's current and future progress.
Meanwhile, Djokovic would like to level their career head-to-head record at 16-16 in their next meeting. He would also like to add his fifth Dubai title, matching Federer.
The matchup since 2011 has swung in Djokovic's favor (9-3), but Federer won two huge matches at the French Open (2011) and Wimbledon (2012), denying the Serbian two Grand Slam title bids, the latter the key for Federer's last major.
Federer is aware that the road to a Dubai title runs through Djokovic, and he said as much to ATP World Tour: "Clearly the favourite for me is Novak...I see him as the favorite for this tournament, plus he's played really well here. The victor is going to go through him at this tournament."
Federer is a difficult adversary because of his usually powerful service defense and low slice shots that keep Djokovic from teeing off or creating his sharp angles. He will look to force the Serbian into quicker, more uncomfortable shots, especially to take away his rhythm.
In the end, each player wishes to control how he will win. Who can impose his shots and play cleaner tennis? Who will be steadier? Which player will become more frustrated?
Marching into the Grand Slam Season
March is the time for Federer to flex his muscle. He has Dubai, Indian Wells and Miami all on hard courts before his preferred surface crumbles into April's clay. These tournaments will serve as his tennis laboratory, where he can continue to perform, adjust the formulas and make his charge for a push inside the top four and a better Grand Slam seed.
Then, Federer and the observing tennis fans will have a better idea of what to expect.
Make no mistake about it: This is an important time for the Swiss legend. The seeds for another Grand Slam title could be sown at Dubai.