Guess who has emerged as the one person upon whom you can rely as a desert storm ravages the ATP and WTA pecking order heading into the final weekend of the first Masters 1000 of the year, Indian Wells?
Many of you know that the door through which the waiting players must pass to walk out onto Centre Court at Wimbledon has a sign above it. On it is written a verse from Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem, “If.” But some less familiar lines from “If” may be even more relevant to Federer now than those oft-quoted ones about triumph and disaster:
“If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too.”
If you’ve been following the results at the Indian Wells Masters combined event, you’ll see how the stanza applies to Federer. He’s in the semifinals now, and he’ll the favorite to beat Alexandr Dolgopolov to a place in the title match. He’s been the most solid of the elite players (and I’m talking about both draws), keeping that well-groomed head as others are losing theirs, trusting himself when so many of us out in fanland doubt him.
There was top-seeded Rafael Nadal, tournament owner Larry Ellison’s bro and house guest, unable to handle the explosions coming off Dolgopolov’s racket in the third round. There was Andy Murray, breaking Milos Raonic’s 140 mph serve but then failing to hold his own one round later. Novak Djokovic, seeded No. 2, is still alive and kicking, although his last two opponents, Alejandro Gonzalez and Marin Cilic, both took sets off him to fuel the litany,”What’s wrong with Nole?”
All Federer has done, meanwhile, is surpass his No. 7 seeding and rip through guys just like he did back in the day, when that enterprise was just considered due diligence en route to a semifinal against Djokovic and a final against Nadal -- or vice versa.
But you know what? It’s not those days anymore, as this tournament has suggested. Granted, even a seemingly compromised Djokovic remains a solid favorite, both officially (thanks to his No. 2 seeding) and in the imagination of pundits and commentators.
That brings us to the second part of that hypothetical question in “If,” that bit about trusting yourself while the minds of others are laced with doubt. That’s the most relevant part for Federer now that he’s 32 and hasn’t won a Masters 1000 title since Cincinnati in 2012.
Few people expected Federer to come on strong early in 2014. Another comprehensive beating laid on by Nadal in the semis of the Australian Open seemed to justify the theory that while Federer could trip up lots of good players with designs on the throne room, he had no more chance of occupying that room himself than did they.
But Federer surprised everyone when the tour set up camp in Dubai. He slashed through the field and grabbed the title on the strength of back-to-back wins over Djokovic and No. 6 but always dangerous Tomas Berdych.
Now here we are, at another desert outpost, and Federer is taking it all in stride with nary a wag of the finger nor a chilly rebuke aimed at his doubters or critics.
“A lot of the guys in the top eight have lost,” he remarked after his quarterfinal win. “That’s unusual. But then again, it's the first Masters 1000 of the year.
For some it's still maybe early in the season. … I don't overanalyze draws or anything. At this point I need to just focus on my matches anyway.”
When Kevin Anderson, the man Federer beat Thursday night, was asked about his opponent, the South African just said, “Roger sort of speaks for himself. There is not too much I can add from that.”
Maybe Anderson can’t speak for Federer, but at least one other guy can. And his name is Kipling.