How Roger Federer could wipe Andre Agassi from record books as oldest world number one
Roger Federer looks hotter than the Melbourne summer as he prepares to chase a return to the world number one spot at the age of 36, writes Desmond Kane.
Andre Agassi once described himself as the "unhappiest" number one in tennis because he had fallen out of love with the game.
It is fair to imagine Roger Federer will be the most exultant holder of the peak slot if he wakes up on January 29 back at the summit. It is difficult to envisage Federer falling out of love with the form of sporting art he has created.
"The world No 1 is interesting. It’s the ultimate achievement in tennis in some ways," said Federer last November.
"It always has been for me. But at this age, I think I’ll make mistakes if I start chasing it. "
Federer last faced Agassi, the game's ultimate gunslinger, when winning the US Open final over four sets in 2005, but could topple him again in Melbourne in a fortnight for the ages.
Federer must win the tournament and hope that a rusty Rafael Nadal does not go further than the fourth round. While not a certainty in the current undulating climate shrouding tennis, it is very much a possibility that the Swiss will return to the top spot five years after such days were supposed to be just a fading memory. He last held the number one berth in November 2012.
Agassi was the oldest number one when he was 33 and 131 days in 2003. Federer will be 36 and 173 days if he can conquer Melbourne for a sixth time.
Roger Federer of Switzerland hits a forehand volley during a practice session ahead of the 2018 Australian Open at Melbourne Park.Eurosport
Age is just a number yet it remains a number worth celebrating in professional sport.
Federer illustrates that wisdom, experience and maturity cannot be bought by a mere flash in the pan, but it can be cultivated by the passing of years. Consistency, duty and dedication are part of an ongoing process.
The historical landmarks of tennis, the ultimate numbers game, cannot be truly measured without appreciating the mists of time. Or the ravages of it that can slay seemingly superior forces without a word of warning. The ailing old guard of Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic have fallen to an even older guard.
It must be said, tennis has reached quite a startling juncture on the cusp of the season's first Grand Slam.
It is astonishing to consider Federer as the outstanding favourite to win the Australian Open at the ripe young age of 36. Especially when only 18 months ago his career seemingly lay in tatters after he fell to the earth in losing to Milos Raonic in the semi-finals of Wimbledon.
“Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows,” is a line from Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
A knee not fully recovered from surgery and a dodgy back prompted an enforced seven-month absence from the sport. But it was not the miserable long kiss goodbye that many had predicted.
Time out was time well spent as victories in Australia and Wimbledon carried him to an 18th and 19th success in the sport’s majors amid a seasonal haul that also gleaned riches in Indian Wells, Miami, Halle, Shanghai and Basel. It was his most successful season since 2007.
Having lifted the Hopman Cup last weekend, one would probably need to go back to the Australian Open in 2010 to discover the last time Federer washed up in Melbourne with such a bounce infiltrating his gait.
He made light work of Andy Murray in straight sets in the final in what felt then like an inexorable march to over 20 in the early part of the decade.
Then came the rise and rise of Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Murray to leave Federer feeling like he was swimming against time and tide with younger vultures circling his carcass over five sets.
When he won Wimbledon against Murray at the age of 30 in 2012, it felt like one against the head, one for the old stagers, a 17th Grand Slam and possibly his last major moment in a tournament suited to shorter, sharper points.
The King is dead, long live the king
Before he arrived in Melbourne a year ago, Federer had dropped to 16th in the world with his success at Wimbledon his solitary victory in the past 27 majors, a sole glaring triumph since the noughties.
Perseverance and self-belief did not desert him. Djokovic’s loss of form and injury after winning the French Open in 2016 has been particularly telling in Federer’s renaissance.
A figure who had enjoyed an 8-4 head-to-head success over the Swiss since 2014, including wins in the Wimbledon finals of 2014 and 2015, the US Open final in 2015 and the 2016 Australian Open semi-finals is no longer a roadblock.
As is his ability to cope with Nadal. He has not needed to confront Djokovic during his shrinkage, and has been comfortable handling Nadal starting with his epic victory over five sets a year ago in Melbourne. He progressed to five straight wins over his traditional nemesis last season to achieve a parity that had proved elusive over several years.
Federer has lifted two out of the past four Grand Slams with work done on shortening rallies and attacking the backhand with venomous intent, particularly against Nadal, a signal that he is no longer content to hang around.
Djokovic and Nadal are likely to make it to the starting line-up, but neither man know how their bodies will hold up. Djokovic has not played a tournament since Wimbledon last July due to an elbow injury with Nadal confronting issues with his knee that saw him withdraw from the World Tour finals two months ago.
In his private moments, Federer must know the scene could not be better set as he attempts to wrench another record into his gilded paws as the oldest holder of top spot since the inception of the rankings in 1973.
Back to the future
When 22-year-old Federer won the Australian Open for the first time in 2004 with a 7-6 6-4 6-2 win over Marat Safin, he became world number one for the first time a week later. It prompted a stay at the summit that lasted 237 straight weeks.
Some 14 years on, he could be seven wins short of repeating the feat - if the cards fall in his favour.
Fate, fortune and an element of foreboding has conspired to leave him on the brink of bridging a 14-year gap in a generation game that is unlikely to be bettered.
This tournament feels like a case of first in, best dressed
It feels like Federer has never been more in fashion.