When Roger Federer rolled back the years to claim his fifth Australian Open title and 18th Grand Slam last month, you’d have been forgiven for thinking you’d stumbled into a time warp.
In fact finals weekend in Melbourne had a wonderfully retro feel to it, with the inimitable Williams sisters going head to head for the ladies’ singles crown.
For Federer, though, his triumph over Rafa Nadal in a thrilling five setter marked an incredible return to form, especially given he’d just spent six months out with a knee injury. Some had written the Swiss star off, claiming the strains of 17 years as a pro were taking their toll. But as he showed in Melbourne, anyone who suggested the curtain was coming down on Federer’s illustrious career did so at their peril. And now, the 35-year-old is returning to one of his favourite stomping grounds here in the UAE as he bids for an eighth title at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, which runs from Sunday February 19 to Saturday March 4. His Melbourne success was finally sinking in when we caught up with the star ahead of the tournament’s 25th edition.
“I did not know what to expect when I arrived in Australia, but I certainly did not expect to win,” he says. “It was one of my most memorable tournaments, and it’s an amazing feeling to have achieved such an incredible success after being away for so long. I would have been very happy reaching the quarter-finals or semi-finals. I had to face so many top ten players in Melbourne so it’s a win I will cherish forever.”
Ever magnanimous in both victory and defeat, Federer says he wouldn’t have begrudged his nemesis Nadal, who had led their head-to-head meetings 23-11 going into that final, the win at the Rod Laver Arena.
“I would have been happy even if I had lost,” he says. “Rafa had come a long way to reach the final having been injured like me for most of 2016, so I was happy we could put those frustrations behind us. Rafa and I have had so many great battles in the past 12 to 13 years, and this was one of the best. We appreciate and respect each other a lot and have gone through a lot together, but on the court, both of us want to win. It’s probably more special for us to play against each other than anyone else.”
After his exploits Down Under, Federer took a well-earned holiday, recharging the batteries ahead of the rest of the ATP World Tour campaign.
His next stop will be a familiar one, though, as Dubai has been a second home to the Swiss since he bought a luxury apartment in Dubai Marina around ten years ago. “I love playing in Dubai and I’m very happy to be back after missing last year,” he says. “It’s one of my favourite stops on the ATP Tour and it’ll be great to celebrate 25 years of tennis in Dubai.”
Federer certainly won’t have it all his own way at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Stadium, with the men’s draw full of top players including his fellow countryman and defending DDF champion Stan Wawrinka and world No.1 Andy Murray. “For sure Andy and Stan will be the favourites, but you can’t discount [Tomáš] Berdych and [Gaël] Monfils. It will be a tough draw for sure and there might be some surprises.
“I hope I can maintain my form and be around for the final weekend. The competition will be tough, as usual, but I have always played well in Dubai as I like the conditions and the atmosphere there.”
The “home favourite” Federer has a huge fan base in Dubai – something he hopes will help drive him on to success. “This is one of the reasons why I love to play in Dubai – the packed stadium at night; the crowd outside following on the big screens. The atmosphere is electric and I look forward to being part of it again.”
On current form, it would be hard to rule out Federer claiming an unprecedented eighth crown in Garhoud. But one thing’s for sure, we’ll be cheering him on every step of the way.
From Dhs75. Sun Feb 19 to Sat Mar 4. Dubai Duty Free Tennis Stadium, Garhoud, www.dubaidutyfreetennischampionships.com and www.800tickets.com (800 842 5387).
Three to watch: ladies’ draw
Double slam champion
Regarded as something of a late bloomer, Kerber had a glorious 2016, winning two Grand Slams (Australian Open and US Open). The German has had a topsy-turvy start to the year, but comes to Dubai as one of the favourites.
Dubai best: Third round (2015).
A briton on the rise
Konta’s meteoric climb up the WTA rankings has seen her gain plaudits from all corners. The first British woman to reach the top ten in 30 years, she comes to Dubai on the back of a memorable week of Fed Cup action.
Dubai best: Debut.
One big serve
Another of the rising stars of the women’s game, Vandeweghe defeated Kerber en route to the Australian Open semi-finals, eventually losing in three sets to the veteran Venus Williams. Watch out for her mammoth serve.
Dubai best: Quarter-final (2016).