New Roger a lot like the old
KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. -- He first came to Miami as a 14-year-old, part of a Swedish junior contingent that stayed for a month.
His last event as a junior was the 18-and-under Orange Bowl in 1998, when he beat future professionals Jurgen Melzer, David Nalbandian and Guillermo Coria on the way to the championship. In 1999, playing for the first time here as a pro, the wild card was ushered from the Miami tournament in the first round.Hard to believe, but this is Roger Federer's 15th appearance at the tournament now called Sony Open Tennis.
"Used to stay at South Beach when I was younger," Federer said a few days ago. "Enjoyed that atmosphere. I have moved away from there since."
Now, of course, he's beyond all that swirling vortex of party. Federer is the father of 4-year-old twins and, at the age of 32, a 17-time Grand Slam champion. He's stayed in Coconut Grove, Coral Gables, even the downtown Brickell section.
"I kind of get around a bit," Federer said. "It's always enjoyable coming back."
Last year, in an effort to streamline his schedule, Federer passed on Miami after 14 straight visits.
Tuesday, on a bruising day of rain and wind, he was back, scalding No. 9 seed Richard Gasquet 6-1, 6-2 in less than 50 minutes. Federer saved the only break point he faced and broke the Frenchman five of six times.
"Today was the first time I felt good going into a match," Federer said, later citing his previous awkward opponents, Ivo Karlovic and qualifier Thiemo De Bakker. "Things went well. Pretty straight forward, really.
"I definitely think I'm playing really good tennis right now, which is encouraging."
Unless, of course, you are Kei Nishikori, who will meet Federer in Wednesday's quarterfinals. They have split two previous matches but are frequent practice partners. Federer said Nishikori's three-set win over David Ferrer caught the attention of his fellow professionals.
"Everybody watched in the locker room and the player restaurant," Federer said. "It was one of those thrilling end to matches, into the tiebreaker with [four] match points saved. It had the whole drama.
"Clearly, I think it's an advantage at this point now that I had a quick match today and he had a really brutal [three-hour] match against Ferrer. Can I take advantage of it? Can he recover quickly? We will see tomorrow."
Coming into Day 7 at Sony Open Tennis, guess which ATP player had the most victories for the season: It was Federer, with a robust record of 21-3.
Djokovic knows this as well as anyone. He lost to Federer in the semifinals at Dubai and then needed a third-set tiebreaker to take the title at Indian Wells.
"I think he's playing in a high level this year," Djokovic said here last week. "He's back to his normal level, the level that he had for seven, eight years while he was so dominant in men's tennis. Obviously, last season he was not as good, for his standards."
Federer won Wimbledon in 2012, his most recent major, but last year he began to show his age. He lost in the second round at Wimbledon, where he is a seven-time champion, and fell in the fourth round at the US Open. The last time he had two Grand Slam results like that was a decade earlier.
The only title he won in 2013 was the modest, little event on grass in Halle, Germany. At times, he looked uncomfortable on the court and, subsequently, he explained why: His back, which has been a growing issue in recent years, restricted his movement significantly.
This year, he says he's healthy again and has two new components in his game: Stefan Edberg as his coach, and a slightly larger Wilson racket. Edberg, a six-time Grand Slam champion, has Federer thinking more aggressively; he seems to be coming to net more often. The racket has given him a little more pop, particularly on his one-handed backhand -- the side that Nadal and Djokovic have exploited in recent years.
He started quickly, reaching the final at Brisbane before losing to No. 60-ranked Lleyton Hewitt and going out in straight sets to Nadal in the semifinals at the Australian Open. But a fourth-round win over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in Melbourne, followed by a quarterfinals success over Andy Murray was encouraging. After helping Switzerland to a Davis Cup win over Serbia, Federer ran the table in Dubai -- beating Djokovic and Tomas Berdych in the process.
"This year, he started strong," Djokovic said. "I can feel that he's striking the ball very cleanly. He's very confident on the court, and he has improved his backhand, I think. Maybe it's the racket or something else, but he definitely has more depth on that shot. He's going more for his top spins, rather than slicing it. With his immense experience and success that he had in his career, he's never to be ruled out.
"Doesn't matter how old he is. It's just a number. As he was saying, he feels good on the court. He's definitely one of the best players in the world now."