Federer says he's underdog
MASON, Ohio - The guy is considered, by pretty much everyone on the planet, to be the best player in the world. He has a 58-3 record this season. Tennis analysts say that by the time Roger Federer's career is complete, he could be viewed as the best ever to play the game.
It was slightly strange then to hear him cast himself as an underdog in tonight's 7:30 first-round match against American wild card James Blake in the Western & Southern Financial Group Masters.
Remember, this is a guy who won Wimbledon in June, who has triumphed in seven other tournaments this season, who is nearly unbeatable when he reaches the finals of an event. Still, Federer refuses to put pressure on himself. He prefers a different approach.
"In a way," Federer said Sunday, "I have nothing to lose."
Considering Federer has been ranked No. 1 for 81 straight weeks, that's an interesting comment. But if you search for it, you can see the point Federer is making.
His record in this tournament isn't impressive - in fact, it's downright awful - but the top-seeded Federer wants to prove that he's recovered from the foot injury that has kept him off the court since Wimbledon and that he can perform well at the Lindner Family Tennis Center, perhaps the only place on earth where he's struggled consistently.
"I tried to get in as early as I could," said Federer, 24, who arrived in Mason on Thursday in order to begin improving his 1-4 career record here. "I'm giving myself a chance to get over jet lag and giving myself a feel for the tournament. I haven't really gotten the chance to get a feel for the tournament, because every time I played here, I left straightaway."
Federer also had the chance to arrive here early, because he didn't play in last week's Masters Series event in Montreal because of the injury. That withdrawal allowed him to rest his foot, on his doctor's advice, and prepare himself mentally for rejoining the ATP Tour after a six-week absence.
"I'm not worried, but I am anxious to see how I'm doing," Federer said. "Matches are always different than a practice. So far it's been good, even though Cincinnati, in the last couple of years, hasn't been the best tournament for me."
That's a bit of an understatement. Last year, coming into the tournament on a 23-match winning streak, he fell to Dominik Hrbaty in three sets. In 2003, he was knocked out in the second round by David Nalbandian, who is 2-0 lifetime against Federer. In 2002, he was beaten in the first round by Ivan Ljubicic, and in 2000, he says, "I was a nobody."
As Blake attests, Federer is somebody now.
"I could play a decent match and lose," said Blake, ranked No. 56 in the world. "It's possible. He's the best, for sure, right now, and by the time he's done, he could be considered the best of all time."
Blake, though, could give him a test.
After losing four straight matches earlier this summer, Blake made the final of last month's Washington event before falling to Andy Roddick. In the process, he beat Radek Stepanek, then-ranked No. 20, in the second round to earn some much-needed confidence.
Plus, if you consider Federer hasn't played in quite a while and hasn't ever performed well here, Blake has the ability to give Federer a tough match.
"Hopefully, he's a little rusty, and I'm going to try to take advantage of that," Blake said. "I'll try to get a quick start. But the guy has had a lot of rest, and he's very professional about his workouts. I'm sure he's coming in here in shape and ready to get you. But like I said, he hasn't played for six weeks."
Federer isn't that worried. His foot is feeling good, and he's feeling relaxed.
"It was a fine time to give the foot a rest," Federer said. "You look down the road, and it's tough to have the chance to give it a rest - the only chance would be after the season. But then it's hard, because you only have two or three weeks to get ready (for the new season). It's tough, but I'm happy I did it now. I feel fresh, mentally and physically and with everything else."