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Monday, March 5, 2012
Federer hopes to master Indian Wells


Any ATP pro ought to be deliriously happy with the kind of six months Roger Federer has had, but given that he's the all-time Grand Slam champ -- and a thorn in the side of the two men ranked above him (No. 1 Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal) -- the run he's had also puts him under a microscope as the two big U.S. hard courts (Indian Wells and Miami) unfold in the coming weeks.

That's how life is these days for the all-time Grand Slam singles champ. He's won 33 of his past 35 singles matches and carried off five singles titles -- including that of the 2011 ATP World Tour Finals. Not bad work for a guy who's over 30 and thus, at least theoretically, is going downhill.

With the win over Andy Murray in Dubai the other day, Federer has also beaten another member of the elite big four in the final of a single-elimination non-major tournament for the first time in well over a year (the previous time was 2010, when he got the better of Djokovic in Federer's home town of Basel, Switzerland).

Now he's got people wondering: Can he really surge and threaten the two men who have stolen his thunder for two years now, or has he pulled off this streak with smoke and mirrors, accessories provided by the fast indoor and outdoor courts on which he's flourished -- slick surfaces on which no Grand Slam events are played?

It's a fact that nobody, but nobody, can match Federer's versatility and shot-making prowess on courts at the fast end of the spectrum. Murray, who beat Djokovic in the semis at Dubai, conceded as much. Analyzing how Federer won the tight first set (the scores were 7-5, 6-4), the No. 4 player recalled a few critical Federer winners and told the press: "You get a lucky shot here or one great shot and you can break the set wide open. So I think that was the difference in the first set."

He added: "I think that the indoor season and the surfaces like this one, I mean, if there were more tournaments on these courts, I think [Federer] could definitely be No. 1 in the world for the next few years. It really suits his game well. Just so many of the courts are so slow now."

Then Murray summed up Federer's dilemma neatly when he noted: "Indian Wells and Miami are going to be very, very different to here. Much slower court, which hopefully will suit my game a little bit better."

Last year, Federer made the semis at both of the upcoming Masters. At Indian Wells, he lost a close three-setter to Djokovic -- but remember it was before anyone, perhaps including Djokovic himself, understood just how glorious a run he was embarking on. At Miami, Federer played one of the worst matches of his career on a big stage, losing to Nadal 6-3, 6-2 in a listless, almost petulant performance.

Djokovic has good reason to be wary of Federer, especially if he can't muster the same form he had last year at this time. That's a real possibility, as we saw in his loss to Murray. And the last time I checked, Federer and Nadal are 5-5 on hard courts, although Nadal recently has carried the biggest days on outdoor hard courts (two wins at the Australian Open and the one in Miami in their past three meetings).

We don't really know much about Nadal's prospects; he hasn't played since he lost that Australian Open final to Djokovic. Federer, on the other hand, is an open book.

And after he won in Dubai, he said: "I think I was just confident. I was playing aggressive. I was focused. I didn't doubt my ability. I'm defending much better than maybe I was in the middle of last year, where I felt like I couldn't come out of tough defensive positions anymore."

If Federer's own assessment about his ability to transition from defense to offense is accurate, he may be a tough out in the upcoming Masters events.