Australian Open Will Be Crucial to Roger Federer's Grand Slam Success in 2016

Jeremy Eckstein@https://twitter.com/#!/JeremyEckstein1Featured ColumnistJanuary 8, 2016

Roger Federer of Switzerland gets ready to serve against Tobias Kamke of Germany during their men's singles match on the fifth day of the Brisbane International tennis tournament on January 7, 2016. AFP PHOTO / Saeed KHAN
SAEED KHAN/Getty Images

Roger Federer's more abbreviated spring schedule is set up to prioritize his energy this summer, but the 2016 Australian Open might be the foundation to his Grand Slam and Olympics success.

Will a strong result at Melbourne be a luxury or necessity for Federer to gain an excellent seeding for Wimbledon, the Olympics and the U.S. Open?

With world No. 1 Novak Djokovic blowing away the ATP field, Federer is involved with an interesting rankings war with other familiar rivals.

The top of the ATP rankings heading into this week:

  1. Novak Djokovic    16,585
  2. Andy Murray          8,945
  3. Roger Federer        8,265
  4. Stan Wawrinka       6,865
  5. Rafael Nadal          5,230
  6. Tomas Berdych      4,620

Ideally, Federer wants to have the No. 2 ranking when July and Wimbledon roll around, but at worst, he does not want to drop to No. 5. That would potentially leave a tougher road of having to defeat three top rivals on the aforementioned list, beginning with the quarterfinals in a Grand Slam event.

What are the logical possibilities with Federer’s ranking points, the omission of several spring tournaments and his ranking at mid-year?

Here is why Australia can allow him to have his cake and eat it too.

BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 07:  Roger Federer of Switzerland smiles after winning his match against Tobias Kamke of Germany during day five of the 2016 Brisbane International at Pat Rafter Arena on January 7, 2016 in Brisbane, Australia.  (Photo by Mat
Matt Roberts/Getty Images

Dropping and Defending Points

The first part of Federer’s extra rest is his deficit spending. His ranking will lose 985 points after he scratches his points totals from last year at Monte Carlo (90), Istanbul (250), Madrid (45) and Rome (600). However, it’s a fairly minor sacrifice for the benefits of sitting out five tournaments.

So far so good, as long as Federer can defend 2,300 points with 2015 results from Brisbane (250), Melbourne (90), Dubai (500), Indian Wells (600), Paris (360), Halle (500).

But suppose Federer loses in the final at Dubai and the semifinals at Indian Wells. That’s a loss of another 440 points for respectable results. And if he had too much rust at the French Open and dropped the final at Halle, suddenly another few hundred points evaporate.

If Federer is not as dominant as he was in 2015, his (approximate) 8,000 points can quickly shrink into the mid-6000s.

The good news is that he can add points at Rotterdam and Stuttgart. A runner-up at the former and a championship at the latter can bank in a nice return of 550 points.

His biggest fish, by far, is the Australian Open. Last year’s third-round loss to Andreas Seppi netted him only 90 points, so a trip to the quarterfinals (worth 360 points) gives him a boost of 270 points.

However, the real payoff happens with the semifinals (720) where Federer can gain 630 points. A final appearance (1,200) would be a tremendous boon of 1,110 points, all but sealing his ranking at No. 2 or No. 3 and giving him peace of mind to sit out during the spring. He’d rather not have to jet out to Madrid or Rome to hang onto a No. 4 seed at Wimbledon.

Francois Mori/Associated Press


Let the Other Rivals War

Federer can reasonably top 7,000 ranking points with his master plan, good enough for the No. 3 ranking in all likelihood. Which of the other rivals could pass him up?

Let’s throw Tomas Berdych out. Unless he turns into mid-1980s Ivan Lendl, the Czech Republic player is not going to push past 5,000-something points.

It really leaves Murray, Wawrinka and Nadal to all leap up with Djokovic and force Federer into the No. 5 ranking. They all have their individual chances to make great runs in the first half of the year, but it will often come at the expense of each other.

Murray: If he bows out early at the Australian Open where he was a finalist last year, it will be a concern. His ranking could continue to hemorrhage if he does not get back to the semifinal at Indian Wells, final at Miami, title at Madrid and return to the French Open semifinal. He must defend nearly 4,000 points right there, and it would require greater results at other tournaments to defray the damage. As it is, he could very well drop into the 7,000-point range.

Paul White/Associated Press

Wawrinka: He will be hard pressed to match his 2015 semifinal at Australia, Rotterdam title and a whopping 2,000 points for winning the French Open. The second Swiss can make up for a lackluster stretch through March and April last year if he can win titles or gain finals appearances at Indian Wells, Miami, Monte Carlo and Madrid, but it would be a surprise to see him top 6,000 points by July.

Nadal: He’s about 3,000 points behind Federer, but the Spaniard is hoping for one of his retro-runs through his favorite part of the year. A great Australian Open (semifinal or better) would set him up for stronger February clay options in South America, Indian Wells and Miami. If he’s energized and rolling, Nadal will almost certainly play better at the European clay-court swing with designs on three Masters 1000 titles and the French Open. He would love to blow things up and seize No. 2, but Djokovic and the other rivals are much fiercer these days.

Looking at all of these possible spreads, there are only so many points to go around. Murray, Wawrinka and Nadal cannot all get hot, share these titles and send Federer to No. 5—not if Federer plays his part well.

BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 07:  Roger Federer of Switzerland speaks during a press conference after winning his match against Tobias Kamke of Germany during day five of the 2016 Brisbane International at Pat Rafter Arena on January 7, 2016 in Brisbane,
Matt Roberts/Getty Images


Australian Momentum

The Australian Open does not clinch a top-four July ranking for Federer, but a semifinal appearance allows him to control his own destiny with reasonable results. Anything better really puts him in the catbird seat. He can establish residency on the faster surfaces he prefers and be fresher to dial it up for his biggest three summer objectives.

An early loss at Melbourne might force Federer to rethink his schedule a bit, perhaps adding another tournament or two to stay well above the No. 5 ranking.

Most of all, Federer wants to continue with the excellence he showed in 2015, and this could be particularly critical with a coaching team switch of Stefan Edberg for Ivan Ljubicic. Confidence and great results can be everything for superstars vying for Grand Slam titles and a gold medal or two in Brazil.

Consensus: Federer could possibly steal the No. 2 ranking when July rolls around, and there's a terrific chance he keeps No. 3. Even with some slippage, he's overwhelmingly likely to stay above the dreaded No. 5 hole.

It all starts with Melbourne, his most important opportunity until July.