Three official matches into his comeback and Roger Federer is already turning heads, wowing crowds and staking a claim for the Australian Open title.
The Swiss may have returned from a six-month injury-enforced lay-off with no expectations but his straight-sets destruction of Tomas Berdych – the world No10 – on Friday will have undoubtedly changed that.
His 90-minute clinic against the Czech saw him fire eight aces, drop just two points on his first serve, face zero break points, win 20/23 points at the net, hit 40 winners (10 off of his famous one-handed backhand) and commit just 17 unforced errors.
Those are not numbers typically expected from someone who is supposed to be rusty and short on match-play.
“It’s just crazy how quick I got out of the blocks,” admitted Federer.
It was a performance reminiscent of his masterpiece against Andy Murray in the Wimbledon semi-finals in 2015. But he had already won four titles that year heading into Wimbledon, and was in great form throughout the previous six months.
The situation is very different this time around. At the Australian Open this past week, Federer hadn’t necessarily played that well in his opening two matches against Jurgen Melzer and Noah Rubin. But in the third round he simply did what he had to do.
As the No17 seed, he knew he would have to play a top player as early as the round of 32. And when that person turned out to be Berdych, someone who had beaten him six times before, Federer had no choice but to “come out of the blocks quickly”.
From his serve, to his backhand, to his net play, Federer was in the zone throughout the match and the stunned facial reactions coming from Berdych, and his coach Goran Ivanisevic, will surely become classic internet memes to be used to for many years to come.
But while Federer suffered no missteps in his first real test of the tournament, it’s worth noting that Berdych’s poor return game played a factor. Even Federer said so himself.
He told Swiss TV after the match: “I was disappointed in Berdych’s return, I expect a bit more from a top player.”
Don’t we all? Berdych continues to baffle, especially that his partnership with Ivanisevic was supposed to give him the aggressive edge and freedom which was missing from his game.
The Croat, who helped guide Marin Cilic to the US Open title in 2014 was also meant to help Berdych on the mental front but nothing we saw on Friday suggested any real progress has been made since they teamed up last August.
Then again, we don’t know what it feels like to be on the receiving end of Roger Federer masterclass. Still, it’s fair to expect a tougher fight from Federer’s next opponent, Kei Nishikori, who was equally impressive in his third round win over Lukas Lacko.
It is obviously too soon to get excited over Federer’s form but should he go on to win a record-extending 18th grand slam this fortnight, it would undoubtedly be his most remarkable trophy run of all.
Triumph would involve him possibly beating five top-10 players back-to-back (Berdych, Nishikori then potentially Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka, and finally Milos Raonic/Rafael Nadal).
Sounds like a monster task!