Roger Federer has certainly earned the right not to sweat the small stuff, and when you’ve won a record 17 Grand Slam singles titles, been ranked No. 1 for more weeks (302) than anyone else in the history of the rankings and completed a career Grand Slam, everything else qualifies as small stuff.
That small stuff would include the ATP 500 tournament now underway in Federer’s home town of Basel, Switzerland.
Federer faces an interesting challenge in the coming days, though. He’s been struggling, and he probably would welcome an end to this year of suddenly living dangerously. But there’s this little matter of the upcoming ATP World Tour Finals. If Federer continues to founder the way he has in recent months, he could be nudged out of a spot in the elite eight, who will contest the year-end championships. That would be especially painful given Federer’s record in these season-ending shootouts.
Right now, Federer is No. 8 in the race. He could easily be overtaken by Richard Gasquet (who’s also playing Basel). Gasquet trails Federer by just 25 points and is defending 190 points. So what? Federer would still qualify as the No. 9 man because No. 4 Andy Murray is out of the picture, rehabbing after back surgery.
Yes, but there are three other hopefuls: Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and two long shots, Milos Raonic and Tommy Haas. Tsonga is hard on the heels of Gasquet and trails Federer by just 90 points. Tsonga, who tweaked a knee in Vienna, is out of the Valencia 500 draw this week and will be defending 180 points in his last event of the year, the Paris Masters 1000. If Tsonga goes one round better than he did last year at that event and makes the semis, he’ll pick up 360 points -- a net gain of 180 points.
Those numbers are meaningful only in relation to Federer’s own, of course, which boils down to the 300 points he’s defending as a 2012 losing finalist in his hometown of Basel. Federer will have to win the event to gain ground, yet he’s won just one tournament this year and hasn’t even been to the championship round since that lone win on the grass in Halle.
If Federer doesn’t equal his 300 points of 2012 in Basel, he will head for Paris under a lot of pressure even though he’s not defending any points there. It’s still the home court of Gasquet and Tsonga but also likes the game of the young Canadian ace-maker Raonic. And Haas won just last week in Vienna, so his indoor game also is in good shape.
It would really help Federer if he could hold on and qualify for the WTF. For one thing, he’s defending 800 points, having been a finalist last year. For another, London and the previous WTF sites have been a stronghold for Federer. He’s qualified 11 times and won the thing a record six times. The WTF would give him a final opportunity to turn the tables on a truly bad year.
Now all those ranking points and the number-crunching analysis they invite are a bloodless way to frame the stakes, but that’s the way the rankings are created. Failure to qualify for the WTF wouldn’t merely underscore how bad a year it’s been for Federer. All those points that would go unreplaced (he’s defending 1100 points between now and the end of the year, which is the equivalent of a Masters 1000 title plus 100 points) also would leave him outside the top eight in the rankings, probably outside the top 10. And as many other aging champions know, that’s a very cold place to be at the start of the year in sweltering Australia.