Roger Federer has cruised through the first two rounds at the Australian Open, but he will need no reminder of the pitfalls of looking too far ahead as he chases a record 18th Grand Slam title. It was at the third-round stage in Melbourne a year ago that the Swiss suffered a stunning upset at the hands of Andreas Seppi to crash out before the semifinals for the first time since 2003.
“I mean, it's the least I expect to be in the third round of a slam, obviously, so I'm pumped up, playing well, feeling good,” he said after defeating Alexandr Dolgopolov in straight sets in the second round. “But there's always a danger, you know. Like last year the third round was the end for me, so I hope to go further this time.”
The defeat 12 months ago was made all the more shocking because Federer had at that stage not lost to Seppi in 10 previous matches. Thus a 100 percent record over his third-round opponent this year may not be all that comforting.
Federer has only faced off with Grigor Dimitrov on four occasions, and although he didn’t even lose a set in their first three contests, their latest meeting was far closer. It came just two weeks ago in Brisbane, when Dimitrov took the second set on a tie-break before Federer closed out the match by winning the third 6-4. Still, with Federer battling an illness at that time, he doesn’t believe too much can be taken from their most recent meeting.
“Brisbane overall was tough to judge in the sense that I was just playing within myself, trying to sort of get through the matches without too many long rallies.”
Friday's match should, though, be a step up in class for Federer, given that Dimitrov also reached the final in Sydney the following week and has the talent that made him a Wimbledon semifinalist in 2014. Indeed, the Bulgarian’s game has long been compared with that of Federer, although he has struggled to deliver on that lofty comparison, particularly in a difficult past year.
“He’s on a high right now,” Federer said. “I think it's a tough draw, to be honest. He's got the game to be really dangerous. He's fit enough for a five-setter, so, I’ve definitely got to bring my best game to the court.”
If Federer should survive that potential banana skin then another member of the generation looking to make a big Grand Slam breakthrough will await in round four. The winner of talented Austrian Dominic Thiem and Belgian 15th seed David Goffin would be up next, two more men against whom Federer has yet to suffer a defeat.
The quarterfinals promise to be trickier still. One of former U.S. Open champion Marin Cilic, Spaniard Roberto Bautista Agut, young Australian Nick Kyrgios or sixth seed Tomas Berdych will make it through to the last eight in that section. Possibly with the exception of Bautista Agut, all would pose real dangers.
Cilic, Kyrgios and Berdych all have big games that have done damage to Federer in the past. Cilic decisively ended Federer’s hopes of winning the U.S. Open at the semifinal stage in 2014; Berdych has beaten Federer twice in the quarterfinals of Grand Slams; while Kyrgios won their only previous meeting in Madrid last year.
For Federer, though, the task will not just be to make it through those tricky matches, but to do so with plenty left in the tank for what would likely lie in store in the semifinals. That’s when he is seeded to meet the world No. 1 and defending champion Novak Djokovic. On current form the Serbian looks almost unbeatable, but Federer had his chances against him in the final of both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open last year. And, while being on the same side of the draw as Djokovic may not be ideal, Federer could benefit from having fewer matches under his belt when he faces the greatest challenge in all of tennis.