Roger Federer is back at Indian Wells as the defending champion, the world No. 1, and a 20-time Grand Slam winner.
After two decades of competing as a professional and breaking almost every conceivable tennis record with a style of play that is more art than sport, you’d think Federer has nothing left to prove, right?
The Swiss legend admits there is always a certain level of pressure when he’s competing, and it’s that feeling that drives him to continue playing at the age of 36.
“You always have something to prove. As much as I’d like to tell you like ‘it doesn’t matter how I play here’, I didn’t come here to lose first round 2 and 2. When you have break point you’re not going to tell yourself ‘who cares, I’m just going to go for it’, it’s hard to think this way,” Federer told reporters at Indian Wells on Thursday.
“Because you do care about the moments, you do care about the fans, what they think, how they portray you and you care for the result, you care for so many things.
“As little pressure there seems to be, there is always on the top guys, you’re always the centre of attention and expectations are there. I’m definitely in a good place. I also feel I have less to prove today than in the past but that doesn’t mean I don’t want it badly. And I need to have that drive to be successful.”
Federer is the No. 1 seed at Indian Wells for the first time since 2010. He regained the top ranking three weeks ago after winning the title in Rotterdam, getting back to the summit for the first time since November 2012.
“It feels very different,” Federer joked about how he felt now that the No. 1 ranking is back next to his name. “No, the same.
“Just the feeling of getting back to world No. 1 is deeply gratifying because today when you’re older you know how much work you’ve put into it.
“Whereas, let’s say in 2004 when I finally got to world No. 1 it was such a relief because I had blew my chance earlier in Montreal months earlier I lost 6-7 in the third against Roddick, I thought like ‘oh man hopefully I’ll still get to world No. 1 one day’. And then when I finally got it I just felt like I probably deserved it, won a lot, played a lot and won the World Tour Finals at the end of the year in Houston.
“And it just kind of happens. Usually it’s connected a Slam as well, so this one was different because I went to chase it in Rotterdam. It was all about world No. 1 when I went to Rotterdam and I think by winning it there and then going back home and celebrating at home, keeping celebrations going and knowing what I had to do to get to world No. 1 so it felt very different yes, but waking up in the morning I feel the same like world No. 2 or world No. 17 like a few years back.”
Five-time Indian Wells champion Federer begins his title defence against either Ryan Harrison or Federico Delbonis on Saturday.
He will have to reach at least the semi-finals in order to hold onto the No. 1 ranking after Indian Wells. Otherwise, the injured Rafael Nadal will replace him at the top following this tournament.
Alexander Zverev believes Roger Federer is sharing his knowledge with players like himself, and others from younger generations, to make sure that tennis will be in good hands when the Swiss legend retires.
Zverev received a surprise pep talk from Federer following the 20-year-old German’s five-set loss to Chung Hyeon at the Australian Open in January and it had quite the impact on him.
Ranked No. 5 in the world, Zverev has had lots of success on tour in his young career, winning six titles including two Masters 1000s. But he is yet to translate that success to the Slams, where he hasn’t made a quarter-final yet.
His latest attempt to reach a last-eight stage at a major came in Melbourne, where he fell to Chung in the third round.
A disappointed Zverev was then given some words of advice from Federer, who told him not to put himself under “unnecessary pressure”.
“I didn’t expect it. I was on my bench in the locker room and he’s actually on the other side of the locker room there,” Zverev told reporters in Indian Wells about that day in Melbourne.
“He came up talking to me, I was obviously really upset, I was bummed out, losing a five-set match in a Grand Slam is never easy, especially I knew I was actually playing alright.
“It’s obviously very encouraging. He told me a little bit of a story that the first time he got past the quarters he was already 22 years old. So for me that was very encouraging, he’s the greatest player of all-time and he told me something like that, that he never passed the quarters until he was 22.
“And I’m only 20 years old. In that case I still have time to win a few majors I’m guessing. For me it’s more about winning matches and winning big titles until I get there.”
Zverev grew up idolising Federer, and has beaten the Swiss twice in five career meetings.
At 36, Federer is currently ranked No. 1 in the world and has won 20 Slams.
Zverev believes Federer has a habit of choosing promising youngsters to mentor and is pleased to be one of them.
“We know that he wants to pass on his knowledge to the guys that he thinks are going to be great as well. He’s done it on a few occasions, he’s done it with Grigor [Dimitrov] a little bit when he was a bit younger,” Zverev continued.
“He’s doing it with me a little bit now, he’s trying to talk to me, he’s trying to give me advice, even in practice when he sees something that I should do differently, like play a shot in a different way, he tells me.
“He’s obviously somebody that understands that he is the greatest player of all-time but at the same time he’s not going to play forever and he is somebody that wants to keep tennis in great hands and wants to keep tennis at the highest level it can be and he’s obviously doing everything to help that.”
Zverev is seeded No. 4 at Indian Wells and shares a quarter with No. 8 seed Jack Sock. He has the likes of Juan Martin del Potro, Novak Djokovic and Marin Cilic in his half and begins his campaign against either Mikhail Youzhny or Joao Sousa.
The 20-year-old is feeling confident heading into the tournament, despite tweaking his knee against Del Potro in Acapulco last week, and insists he has zero concerns about his Grand Slam prospects.
Zverev has competed in just 11 Slam main draws so far, with his best appearance being a Wimbledon fourth round last season. He blamed the media for placing pressure on him saying: “I understand that everybody thinks I have to win a Slam within the next three months otherwise it’s a disaster for me.
“But to be very honest, I think the pressure comes a little bit from you guys as well, everybody keeps talking about the Grand Slams in our sport but obviously I’ve won two Masters so I know what it takes to win big tournaments, I know what it takes to beat the best players in the big tournaments.
“I’ve beaten Novak and Roger in those [Masters] finals, so those are not small matches for them either.
“The Grand Slam results will come, I’m not even worried about that. I said in Australia I thought I played well. I lost to a very strong Chung, who played phenomenal.
“He didn’t lose a set to anybody, but me, until he lost in the semi-finals. That is somebody who played with a lot of confidence and great feel. And I still had a chance to win, I had a chance to win that match in four sets.
“So for me it’s about getting through those matches and playing my best and the rest will take care of itself.”
Maria Sharapova admits things have been “frustrating” for her since her return from her doping ban last April, with her first round defeat to Naomi Osaka in Indian Wells on Wednesday being the latest setback for the Russian star.
Sharapova, who lost to Osaka 6-4, 6-4 in one hour and 35 minutes, fought back from a break down in each set but couldn’t stop the 20-year-old Japanese from advancing.
Physical problems have interrupted Sharapova’s comeback multiple times so far. Her most recent issue has been a forearm injury that forced her to withdraw from Dubai after she lost in the Doha first round to Monica Niculescu.
Sharapova’s loss to Osaka is her third defeat in a row on tour and takes her win-loss record in 2018 to 5-4.
“I’ve been working through a few physical things and that’s been frustrating because there’s been a lot of starts and stops since I’ve come back and that hasn’t really given me the type of playing match rhythm that I really wanted,” said the two-time Indian Wells champion on Wednesday night.
“But I felt like I committed today and there are a lot of good things that I can take away.
“It hasn’t been an easy couple of weeks since Doha, trying to get healthy, but it’s there, I need some time. I’ve done it before. It’s obviously frustrating to lose these types of matches that you get ready for and you want to win but it’s part of the process, I realise that.”
Sharapova was facing Osaka for the first time and described her as a “rising star”, commending her aggressive game.
Currently ranked 41 in the world, the five-time Grand Slam champion was one of several dangerous unseeded players in the draw – Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka are also unseeded – and is still making her way back up the rankings
“I knew that since the comeback, I have to work to get myself to be in a seeding position, to get what they call a better draw, all those things. That takes work, that takes time, I’m not afraid of any of that, I’ve been in those positions before,” assured the 30-year-old Sharapova.
Asked if she thought she would be farther along in her comeback by now, nearly 11 months into return, Sharapova said: “That’s not how I looked at my comeback. All I know is that this year I’m competing and I’m playing and last year I wasn’t in that position so I have a lot to be grateful for when I walk out through the tunnel and onto that court and I have an incredible amount of fans that watch me play and that I get to play in front of. And that I didn’t have for a long period of time so that’s a big difference.”