“The No. 1 tax is very low in this case,” Courier said.
To scale the summit for the first time since Nov. 4, 2012, Federer need only reach the semifinals in Rotterdam. That means winning three matches, the first against the Belgian qualifier Ruben Bemelmans on Wednesday night in what will be their first meeting.
Win that and Federer’s second-round opponent will be the 36th-ranked Philipp Kohlschreiber, whom Federer has beaten in all 12 of their singles matches. Make it 13-0 and Federer is guaranteed to face a Dutchman ranked no higher than 42 — perhaps Robin Haase — in the quarterfinals with the top ranking at stake.
“It would be absolutely incredible,” Federer said of reaching No. 1, in an interview with Tennis TV. “I can’t believe I’m this close, but No. 1 has never been simple, never been easy to get there. So I know it’s going to be a lot of hard work for me this week mentally just to cope with everything, just also not thinking too far ahead.”
Still, the odds appear to be heavily in his favor, all the more so now that Stan Wawrinka, still working his way back from knee surgery but the only other major winner in Federer’s quarter of the draw, was upset on Tuesday by the Dutch wild-card Tallon Griekspoor.
Federer even gets the chance to keep playing indoors, which is where he played his last two matches at the Australian Open.
His semifinal with Hyeon Chung was contested under a closed roof in Melbourne because of rain. The final against Marin Cilic was played under a closed roof because of heat and humidity, a decision that caught the finalists and many others by surprise because the match was played in the evening.
That’s why it is time for the Australian Open to revisit its extreme heat policy and not leave quite so much to the tournament referee’s discretion. The sentiment in some sectors of the tennis community that the Australians may have been protecting Federer from the elements this year does no one any favors and distracts from a remarkable achievement that Federer was perfectly capable of managing without caveats.
The fact that Tennis Australia and Federer are now in business together does not help.
Tennis Australia, like the United States Tennis Association, is a partner in the Laver Cup, the team event Federer’s management group started in 2017. The Laver Cup advertisements that were visible in Melbourne Park raised some eyebrows in the player lounge (there were also signs on site for Rafael Nadal’s academy in Majorca).
Given all that, the Australian Open should be bending over backward to eliminate any impression that the tournament is favoring Federer (or Nadal). So should the United States Open come August.
But then tennis runs on conflict of interest like few sports. It also runs on breaking records, which has long been Federer’s forte.
“We shouldn’t lose sight of how amazing it is that Roger is playing at this level at 36,” Courier said. “That he can make another run at the No. 1 ranking this week is a testament to his immense talent, diligent work habits and intelligent scheduling over the course of his career.”
If he gets to No. 1, he will be the oldest player to do so in ATP ranking history. He is more than three years older than top-ranked Andre Agassi in 2003; Serena Williams, the oldest No. 1 singles player in WTA history, was 35 when she last held the top spot in 2017.
That Federer is this close even after skipping the clay-court season last year is a big surprise and also an indicator of how much his younger rivals — Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, both 30 — have struggled with injuries. Even though Federer won last year’s Wimbledon and this year’s Australian Open without facing any of the so-called Big Five, he has been an inspiration, picking his spots and proving that less can lead to more.
“The thing that is amazing is Roger having the ability to play less and yet not lose confidence due to lack of reps,” said Paul Annacone, his former coach. “That is a tough balance for anyone.”
Considering the unlikely confluence of circumstances that have led to this moment, it is tempting to think it may never be matched.
“I do think Novak could make a similar run to the top at 36 if he is able to regain full health,” Courier said. “I could see his professionalism and talent taking him back to the pinnacle in his mid-30s.”
Agassi was 33 when he last was No. 1. He was in the midst of a late-career surge animated by regret over missed opportunities in his less-committed youth and by the desire to play for a higher cause: the school he had opened in Las Vegas.
He was also racing the clock and a degenerative back problem that already was requiring cortisone injections.
Federer, who has had back problems of his own, seems to be feeling no such pain at this stage and is even talking about playing the tournament in Dubai this month, too. He then intends to defend his hardcourt titles at Indian Wells (all but certain) and Miami (we’ll see). After that, he presumably will play as little clay-court tennis as possible, perhaps none at all, which was his winning formula last year.
That is not because he has no chance at the French Open. He needs to pace himself and avoid too much risk to his postoperative knee, as Pierre Paganini, his longtime fitness trainer, explained to me late last year.
“The advantage when you play on clay for the joints is there is less shock because there is the slide, and the disadvantage on hard courts is there is that shock,” he said. “But the advantage on hard courts is that the shock is brief. It’s bang and the foot leaves the ground and a player who is as coordinated and a dancer like Federer, he crushes his joints a bit less at that bad moment.
“In contrast, the disadvantage with the slide on clay is that in the joints there is a lot of vibration. We don’t see it from the outside, but to control this slide there is instability in the knee, the foot, the ankle. And that in some cases can be bad for the knee or joint in question.”
However logical, skipping the French Open again would still be a sacrifice. Federer has been the third-best clay-courter of this era, behind Nadal and Djokovic. He won the French Open in 2009, securing his spot in the greatest-ever debate.
Becoming the oldest No. 1 in ATP history could turn that debate into a filibuster, and here he is, tantalizingly close without having been single-minded about the chase.