Roger Federer insists he is feeling no extra pressure to perform at tournaments despite playing a relatively curtailed schedule for the past couple of seasons.
The Swiss world No. 3, who fell to Kei Nishikori in his ATP Finals opener on Sunday in London, has contested 13 tournaments in 2018, and 12 in 2017, compared to 17 events in each of the seasons from 2012 to 2015.
At 37, Federer has become more and more meticulous with his scheduling, and has opted out of playing the clay season altogether in 2017 and 2018. He hasn’t competed at the French Open since 2015.
A winner of a men’s record 20 Grand Slam titles, Federer started this season with a stunning 17-0 win-loss record — a stretch that saw him return to the world No. 1 spot in February, becoming the oldest to occupy that position in the 45-year history of the ATP rankings. He is 21-6 since the start of Wimbledon though, falling in the quarter-finals at the All England Club to Kevin Anderson, and losing to John Millman in the fourth round of the US Open.
While his season remains a highly successful one, Federer acknowledges that it was never going to be like his impressive 2017, that saw him pick up seven titles, including two Slams, and lose just five matches all year.
Asked if he felt a different kind of pressure nowadays at tournaments compared to when he was playing a fuller schedule, Federer said: “I used to play exactly this schedule for about 15 years, this last second part of the season. It’s just that the clay has been less. Other than that, I don’t see a major difference.
“I want to do well at every tournament. I think fans know that. Tournament directors know that. I know it. My team knows it.
“I don’t think, per se, I’m playing worse because of it. I think I’ve had that pressure not going out early most of my career. Once I became world No. 1 anyways. Once you’ve been a former world No. 1, you always have that for the rest of your career, for every guy.
“Yeah, I mean, that my season was never going to be exactly like last year. I knew that going into the season. If you thought I was going to have, I think you are dreaming a little bit, I think. I’m happy how I played this season. I didn’t feel like playing less was a problem, if that’s what it was. I didn’t feel I played less, per se.”
Federer is targeting the 100th title of his career this week at the ATP Finals at the O2 Arena in London, and next takes on Dominic Thiem in a crucial round-robin clash on Tuesday.
“We haven’t played in a while, I don’t remember when that was the last time [I played Thiem]. I mean, okay, whatever. I haven’t thought about the match, to be honest. I haven’t had enough time. I wasn’t even thinking who I’m going to play next. I just know I need to do better than today. That’s pretty much it,” Federer said after his loss to Nishikori on Sunday.
Thiem is one of just three active players to have a positive head-to-head record against Federer (the Austrian is 2-1 against him), but they haven’t played in over two years and the Swiss won their sole previous meeting on hard courts.
Thiem is making his third consecutive appearance at the ATP Finals, and lost his opening match against Kevin Anderson in straight sets on Sunday.
Roger Federer produced an error-strewn performance to lose his opening match at the ATP Finals 7-6 (4), 6-3 to Japan’s Kei Nishikori on Sunday night at London’s O2 Arena.
The Swiss six-time champion suffered his first defeat to Nishikori since Miami 2014, and saw his quest for 100th career title get off to a rocky start.
Prior to the tournament, Federer had revealed that he was losing every match he had been playing in practice. In the match against Nishikori, the 37-year-old committed 34 unforced errors.
“I think it plays different or it’s definitely slower than I think the last three tournaments that I’ve played. So I think everybody’s making a minor adjustment. So am I,” explained Federer after the match.
“I’ve been feeling fine. It’s just that practice has been a bit all over the place. Practiced in Queen’s, practiced on the outside courts here, then Centre as well. So it’s not always exactly the same conditions. Overall I thought I’m hitting the ball okay. Warm-up today was totally fine.
“I think maybe we both had a bit of nerves, too, not knowing how to attack second serve. I thought I saw the bit of the same with [Dominic] Thiem, as well, early on, trying to get the right feel for it. I think we both struggled to get that early. It’s okay now, now that the first match is out of the way.”
Federer, who is making a record 16th appearance at the ATP Finals, has advanced to the semi-finals on each of his previous participations except in 2008.
There were signs of shakiness from the start, when he mistakenly hit himself with the ball, while attempting to return a Nishikori serve. But there were also flashes of brilliance from him that sent the pro-Federer crowd wild during various moments in the first set.
— Tennis TV (@TennisTV) November 11, 2018
Neither player capitalised on their opponent’s second serves but Federer was slightly more comfortable during his service games in the first set. But a brilliant backhand get from Nishikori when he was serving at 5-6, 15-30 helped the Japanese No. 7 seed swing the momentum to his side and he held serve then quickly went up 6-1 in the tiebreak.
CAN you believe that!? 😱@keinishikori in fine form 👏
— ATP World Tour (@ATPWorldTour) November 11, 2018
Federer saved three set points but Nishikori converted on his fourth opportunity to take a one-set lead after 51 minutes.
Federer broke Nishikori to start the second set but he gifted him back the break and it was all his opponent needed to secure the win.
“I felt we both struggled throughout the first set. You could tell it was sort of a first round. I had my chances maybe a bit more than he did. Yeah, then I started to feel better in the second set. I think we both did. The level went up,” said Federer. “Yeah, unfortunately I couldn’t keep the lead that I got early.
“That was important, I think, at the end. That was the key of the match, that sort of I guess 10-minute swing at the end of the first throughout maybe 1-All in the second. Maybe being the leader rather than being down so…”
Federer received a warning for ball abuse in the opening set and had a quick conversation with the umpire voicing his discontent over the decision.
“I was, just because I thought what was his argument, you know, why the warning. But nothing more than that. He thought I was angry. I wasn’t. Now I’m angry because I lost, but I wasn’t, so… He knows me very well apparently, or he thought so,” explained Federer.
The win saw Nishikori snap a six-match losing streak to the Swiss. Competing in the ATP Finals for a fourth time, the two-time semi-finalist is now a remarkable 35-4 in matches where he has won the opening set.
John Isner was coming out of spin class back home in North Carolina last week when he got the call informing him that he had qualified for the ATP Finals for the first time in his career, following the withdrawal of Rafael Nadal.
The 33-year-old new dad flew to the United States after the Paris Masters to enjoy some home comforts like hanging out with his two-month-old daughter Hunter and lying on his couch watching football.
He got on a plane soon after, accompanied by his wife and daughter, and came to London to make his debut at the O2 Arena. Isner kicks off his campaign against Novak Djokovic on Monday night (20:00 London time, midnight Dubai time), looking to improve on his 2-8 head-to-head record against the Serbian world No. 1.
“I think it will be really easy for me,” Isner said sarcastically when asked about his clash with Djokovic. “I’m up against, for sure he’s the No. 1 player in the world, he’s won this event five times if I’m not mistaken, he’s the player to beat this week for sure.
“It’s a good spot for me because I don’t have much to lose, I’m definitely the underdog. So I’m going to go out there and just try to play my best, just try to play loose and free and see what happens. I’ve played him I don’t know how many times, seems like eight or nine times, I’ve beaten him a couple, but he’s beaten me more times than not. So it’s going to e a very, very tough match for myself. But I’m looking forward to it. The atmosphere is going to be great, and it’s going to be a good challenge.”
— ATP World Tour (@ATPWorldTour) November 9, 2018
The oldest first-time qualifier since 1972, Isner enjoyed a career-best season this year, winning his maiden Masters 1000 title in Miami, and reaching his first Grand Slam semi-final at Wimbledon.
“It means a lot to be here. I’ve certainly been pretty close throughout my career to make it to this event, it just hasn’t quite happened. I also realise that this year I’m pretty fortunate to be here as well. That being said, I had a very good year, and I put myself in the position to make this event, and it happened. For me to do this at 33, to be competing in my first Nitto ATP Finals is very satisfying for me personally,” said the 10th-ranked Isner.
The day session on Monday will see 21-year-old German Alexander Zverev take on Croatian four-time qualifier Marin Cilic. Zverev is making his second straight appearance at the O2, and leads the tour with 54 victories posted in 2018, including three titles in Madrid, Washington and Munich.
Zverev, in London with his coach of three months Ivan Lendl, will be looking to erase the memories from his third round robin match here last year, where he squandered a lead in the final set against Jack Sock to miss out on a spot in the semi-finals.
“I lost the match in a not so good way, so I hope history doesn’t repeat itself. Obviously another year on tour for me, another year of experience, hopefully it’s going to be different this year. But obviously very tough matches, great players, big guys, big serves, and Novak as well, so I’m just looking forward to playing good tennis here,” said Zverev ahead of his opener.
For the first time since 2004, four players outside the ‘Big Four’ – Isner, Zverev, Juan Martin del Potro and Karen Khachanov – have won Masters 1000 titles in the same season. For some, it may seem like a sign that we might get a new Grand Slam champion next season, but Isner doesn’t see it that way.
“No. I won one, Sascha won two the year before, so he’s not a newcomer in that winners circle. It was Del Potro’s first Masters title but we all know how good he is, he’s got a Grand Slam. Karen last week played incredibly well, and he still had to beat Djokovic in the final, it’s not like he beat someone lower-ranked in the final. He beat the No. 1 player in the world. I still think the old guard with Novak, Rafa, Roger [Federer] and when Andy [Murray] gets back healthy, they won’t be giving up those Masters titles too easily,” said the American.
Zverev, who has been described as the future of tennis for some time now but has reached just one Grand Slam quarter-final so far in his young career, admits it’s about time the up-and-comers gave the big guns a run for their money.
“For sure we have to step it up, for sure we have to improve, but that’s normal, everybody has to improve,” said Zverev. “Novak this year, what he’s done in the second half of the year is unbelievable. We do see that. We know we have to improve our games, nothing changes.
“So someday hopefully we will kind of surpass them and take over, even though it would be great for tennis if Roger and Rafa and Novak play forever, but you’ve got to ask them if they actually want to.
“There have always been discussions about the next generation, it was also the case 20, 30 years ago, it was always like what happens after McEnroe, Borg retire? What happens after Sampras and Agassi retire? So there’s always been new guys that excite tennis, there’s always been new guys that kind of take tennis over. It’s always been the case and I hope that it will happen naturally here as well.”
Federer is making a record 16th appearance at the ATP Finals this week, where the world No. 3 is targeting the 100th title of his career. At 37, the Swiss continues to defy all odds, which has left Zverev in awe of his longevity.
“I don’t know what I’ll be doing when I’m 37. I hope I’ll still be playing tennis, but nobody’s Roger, so… we’ll see how it goes. Obviously it’s a great achievement that in itself, and he’s won this tournament plenty of times, we know his history, he’s won so many other titles. That’s why he’s considered the greatest player of all-time. What’s he’s doing at 37 years old is something we’ve never seen before and I’m not sure, we might not ever see it again, so let’s just appreciate that and enjoy what he’s doing right now,” said Zverev.