7:06 PM ET
- Peter BodoTennis Close
- Peter Bodo has been covering tennis for over 35 years, mostly recently for ESPN. He is a former WTA Writer of the Year and the author of numerous books, including the classic "The Courts of Babylon" and the New York Times bestseller (with Pete Sampras), "A Champion's Mind."
Roger Federer said it more than once this week: The surface at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden makes the Masters 1000 tournament going on there "more of a sprint than a marathon."
That's good news for the nimble 18-time Grand Slam champion, who's been wielding his racket like a rapier and gliding across the court more like an ice dancer than a 35-year-old tennis pro still theoretically recuperating from knee surgery. It's less encouraging for his bearish former understudy and powerful opponent in Sunday's final, fellow Swiss countryman Stan Wawrinka.
Federer holds a 19-3 head-to-head advantage on Wawrinka, whose three wins all were crafted on clay. But they would have to play this match on molten lava for Federer not the be the favorite. Federer has won all 14 matches they have played on hard courts.
It may sound grim for Wawrinka, but the 31-year-old is a late-bloomer who may still be popping new buds. He's also evolved into a man who's most dangerous when the stakes are highest. Few expected Wawrinka to beat Djokovic in the US Open final last September, and that match was also on hard courts. In fact, he won two of his three major titles on hard.
But Wawrinka struggled in the desert this past week, sometimes mightily. He was forced to third-set tiebreakers in two of his three previous matches. Federer, by contrast, hasn't lost a set, or even a service game. (Rafael Nadal and Jack Sock each failed to convert a lone break point). That's impressive, even when you take into account that Federer has played just four matches, including Saturday's 6-1, 7-6 (4) win against Sock.
The buzz in the desert has been all about Federer's newly lethal backhand. Perhaps it's because the theme for so many years has been how vulnerable that shot seems to have been to the depredations of Nadal and then Djokovic. The narrative coming out of the tournament has been that Federer is finally fully acclimated to a relatively new, larger-headed racket, and that has made all the difference in the world.
"I think I have also gained confidence stepping into [the backhand]," he told reporters after he eliminated Nadal. "Obviously, you have to take it [the ball] on the rise, and for that you need good footwork, because if the footwork is not right, you won't be on top of the ball."
Translation: It isn't just about the backhand or the technology. It's about something more foundational, his mobility. That may be an even more delightful surprise for a man of his age, with his recent injury history.
Federer's spectacular run in Australia has also yielded a confidence dividend. He now embraces an aggressive game plan that he didn't entirely trust earlier in his career. It turns out that by his own estimation, this surface may be even more suited to his particular attacking skill set than a faster hard court. As he said in his on-court interview with ESPN's Brad Gilbert after his straight-sets win over Sock in the semifinals:
"The conditions here really help the server, especially the guys with the one-two punch. The ball doesn't come back super quick, so you can set up."
What he didn't say is that those conditions are even better suited to a spot server, like himself, than a power-serving ace-meister. They invite a sprint but don't rule out a marathon.
"Getting in the lead was crucial and then staying on the offense and pressing was the goal for me," Federer said.
It all adds up to bad news for Wawrinka, but he's one of those players who can generate so much power and hit with such precision that anything is possible. If he reverses the trend and successfully attacks Federer's serve, or Federer has bad serving day, all bets are off.
Wawrinka can club stone-cold winners from anywhere on the court. He's one of those players who demonstrates that you don't have to be a great mover — not if you can make the other player do all the running, or if your opponent isn't able to stretch the court.
"Stan is going to be very different from Jack," Federer said. "He doesn't hit with much spin. He blocks first serves. He can play from deep or from on the baseline."
Given the record, you couldn't blame Federer if he had added, "and Stan can run, but he can't hide." But that's the thing with Wawrinka — why he so dangerous. He won't run. He won't hide. He's neither sprinter like Federer or marathoner like Nadal.
Wawrinka will probably stand his ground and slug it out. For better or worse. Probably the latter.