Defending champion Roger Federer goes into next week’s Australian Open knowing that he will never have a better chance to reach the magical figure of 20 grand slam wins.
At 36-years of age, the Swiss master is not getting any younger, but as the tennis world discovered last season, a fit, healthy and in-form Federer is still more than a match for the majority of the circuit’s young pretenders.
After an injury hit 2016, Federer came back with a bang last season to win an incredible seven singles crowns including his 18th and 19th grand slams at the Australian Open and Wimbledon respectively. Winning seven titles was all the more impressive considering that he took the entire clay court season off to rest as he prepared for what he identified as other more-winnable tournaments.
This year looks like it could be more of the same for Fed as he has begun 2018 in good shape, already winning the Hopman Cup with partner Belinda Bencic in a tournament that saw him record singles wins over rivals Jack Sock and world number 4 Alexander Zverev.
Even better for Federer is that the passage to a potential fifth Australian Open title looks free of major obstacles given that so many of the world’s top players are either out or struggling with injury.
Andy Murray and Kei Nishikori have already withdrawn because of injuries, while past champion Stan Wawrinka’s participation also looks to be in doubt.
Fed’s biggest rivals Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal are supposedly fit and raring to go, but both have struggled in recent weeks, pulling out of tournaments in the build up to Melbourne. The rigours of the year’s first major will put their bodies to the test, and if they are found wanting then a fit Federer will be waiting to pounce.
With so many of the best players either out or with question marks hanging over their fitness, it will fall upon the best of the rest to try and derail the Federer express, but given past form it is hard to see the likes of Grigor Dimitrov, Dominic Thiem, Marin Cilic and David Goffin being able to pull it off.
Federer seems to go up another level whenever a major tournament comes around, and when a fired up Fed is at his best, none of the above have so far proven they are able to live with him.
Other potential hurdles, such as Nick Kyrgios, Juan Martin Del Potro, Milos Raonic and Alexander Zverev have shown they are capable of beating Federer on their day, but the caveat is that they are wildly inconsistent, making it hard to favour them over an in-form Swiss legend.
In fact, given the current situation it is very hard to look past arguably the best player of all time when it comes to picking a potential champion for Melbourne Park and that is why the smart money should be on Federer lifting the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup trophy come January 28.