Why Roger Federer is no underdog at the Australian Open

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Can you hear that? There is a particular noise that major tennis tournaments make, a mix of grunts and shoe squeaks, cheers and whistles, bustle and punditry. This year in Melbourne, though, there’s something missing. It’s a sound we’ve grown so accustomed to, that perhaps we’ve taken it for granted. It’s the sound of people predicting a win for Roger Federer.

Immediately before the start of the 2013 Australian Open, most bookmakers gave the Swiss odds of around six to one. That is to say, they considered Roger Federer, current Wimbledon titlist, 17 time grand slam champion, four time winner at this event, to be just under two thirds as likely to lift the trophy as Andy Murray, and only a third as likely as Novak Djokovic.

Most observers appear to concur: though few have counted him out entirely, I have yet to find a big name who’s actually backed Federer for this title. The reasoning? Murray and Djokovic are in their prime; Federer, on the other hand, is getting old. He’s 31, after all. Doesn’t that qualify him for a free bus pass or something?

But, I hear you asking, what about 2012? Didn’t Federer have a great season last year? No one could deny that, including those who seek to downplay his chances. The narrative they present is that 2012 was a tremendous late career surge back to world number one from a remarkable player, but nonetheless an aberration, a temporary reprieve against inevitable decline.

The trouble with this narrative is that it’s based on frankly ageist assumptions rather than evidence. What the evidence says is that, remarkably and despite his age, Federer has not begun to decline at all.

Take a look at his winning percentages over the last several years:

Matches Win % Win % vs Big Four Win % vs All Others

2012

83

85.5

50

91.5

2011 & Late 2010

114

86

44.4

93.8

March-July 2010

30

70

0

72.4

2009 & Early 2010

84

84.5

50

90.3

 

This presents a surprising picture. Federer experienced a significant dip between Indian Wells and Wimbledon 2010, losing nine of 30 matches. If this brief period is taken as an anomaly, however, then Federer’s success in 2012 starts to look less like a late career flourish, and more like the continuation of an apparently stable long-term situation. Last year, Roger competed equally with the rest of the Big Four and dominated everyone else, just as he had done for most of the previous three years.

In light of this, Federer’s defeats to Murray and Djokovic at the Olympics and World Tour Finals respectively cannot seriously be taken as proof that the younger players have now decisively overtaken their older rival. Two matches in four months do not make a trend, especially as Federer had a win against each of them in this same period.

Detractors might point to the Swiss star’s failure to win a hard court major since Australia 2010, but this too gives a false impression. Could anyone say his two losses to Djokovic in New York were one-sided, that he somehow had no chance in those tournaments? Looking at his overall performance and his results, it is quite simply too early to say that the Federer era is over.

Of course, Murray and Djokovic are more likely to improve in 2013, and much less likely to decline. If –or rather when -there is a change in the balance of power, it will not favour Switzerland’s finest. As of right now, however, there is no good reason to think that Roger Federer at 31 will play much worse than he did at 30 or 29. Oddsmakers and rivals ignore him at their peril.

 

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