By Richard Osborn
Leave it to Roger Federer to turn a six-month layoff into an advantage. Sidelined with a knee injury for the second half of 2016 — by far the longest hiatus of his two-decade-long professional career — the 35-year-old didn't sulk, didn't fall to pieces. Instead, the busy father of four looked at it as "an opportunity."
"The thing is I had to take that time off," said Federer, who is prepping for his first-round match at the BNP Paribas Open. "It’s not like I took six months off because I thought it was the right thing to do before the Australian Open. I actually had to take the time off. My knee wasn’t well. I didn’t have a choice, per se. But if you look at the big picture, sometimes you have to step away to come back strong."
When he did return this January in Melbourne, he figured it would be slow going. In fact, so low — on the Federerian Scale anyway — were his expectations, that the Swiss maestro says he would have settled for a fourth-round showing, perhaps a quarterfinal. After his first-round 7-5, 3-6, 6-2, 6-2 win over Austrian veteran Jurgen Melzer, he went so far as to tell the press that he could have flown home that very day a satisfied customer.
"I’m injury-free, I'm playing at the Australian Open. Things are good. I'm happy to be back on the court," he recalled on Wednesday at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden. "[But] I went all the way. I still can’t believe it."
His epic five-set win over longtime nemesis Rafael Nadal in the Melbourne final produced his record 18th Grand Slam trophy. The experts had been muting his chances at another major of late — after all, the tricenarian had gone nearly five years without one — but Federer proved he’s anything but done.
"I heard that in Switzerland things were a bit crazy on finals day and throughout the tournament because it was so unexpected for me to play so well," he said. "On the web, social media, you see that there was a lot happening. There was a lot of 'best forehands,' 'best backhands,' match-point reactions — everything. I was watching everything the first couple of weeks after it was all said and done, which was a lot of fun."
Then he added: "I still feel like I’m on Cloud Nine."
How hard was it for world No. 10 to be away from the game for so long?
"It was fairly easy because in the beginning I couldn't have played. Only in the last three weeks of the season did I feel like maybe I could play a set with those guys. Then the season was over. That's when I really started to go into harder training. From that standpoint, there was never a thought that crossed my mind that I could have come back earlier. I didn't want to do it because I really wanted extra time to get ready for the Australian Open. I hope this sends out the message to the players that they should take extra time after coming back from an injury, that it’s okay to take extra time to train to become a better tennis player."
In the end, eight weeks on the practice court were all he needed to get his Grand Slam form back.
"I don’t feel like I needed an injury for perspective," he confided. "But I do understand now when people are injured what it means going into surgery, how they feel, how they come out of it, that it’s an opportunity as well as it is hard to go through. It's okay to be sad, to be disappointed and maybe even angry. There are a lot of new things I learned. For me, because it's a new situation, I want to live it — live it big and try to make the most of it, come out of it with something. I came back rejuvenated and potentially with a slightly different mindset, maybe more fortunate."
Following a hiccup last month in Dubai, where he was shocked by Russian journeyman Evgeny Donskoy 7-6(5) in a third-set tiebreak, Federer arrived in the California desert to the cold reality that he’d be competing in a quarter of the draw that collectively comprises some 45 Grand Slams, including longtime rivals Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Juan Martin Del Potro, not to mention on-the-rise stars Nick Kyrgios and Alexander Zverev. For some, this might have been an ideal moment to panic. But Federer clearly relishes the opportunity.
"Most of the guys you won’t even see because they’ll eliminate each other," he told BNPParibasOpen.com. “The first message I got was Dudi Sela or Stephane Robert. I said, 'Okay, fine.' Then I heard that Rafa was in my section. Then I heard maybe Novak was in my section. It doesn't matter. I've gone through so many draws. I came here to Indian Wells to play against those guys. It doesn't matter if it's the semis, the final or the fourth round. I know it matters for you guys. The only problem is most of them will have to lose early. That opens the draw for other players. It's an opportunity for other guys to rise in the rankings. But it’s good for me to play those guys early. I look forward to it."
Federer had to turn back the clock to 2004 to recall a comparable draw. That was the year he topped Marat Safin in the Australian Open final, only to face the future Hall of Famer weeks later in the opening round in Dubai. How did he respond? He went on to win the title, of course.
• The Swiss is chasing his fifth Indian Wells title, and first since 2012.
• Federer was a back-to-back finalist in his most recent appearances in the desert, in 2014 and 2015.
• A title here would be the 90th overall of his career.