Unlike Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray, Roger Federer chose to skip the first clay court Masters event of the year, and will next be seen competing at the Madrid Masters in the first week of May.
The Swiss has gained millions of fans and admirers all over the globe, but as he nears the twilight of his career, some are wondering if the 17-time Grand Slam champion still has what it takes to succeed on the very biggest stages. Since storming to the Wimbledon title last July, and following it up with a commanding victory over Djokovic in Cincinnati, Federer hasn't won a title, and hasn't looked at his best in 2013.
As he gears up for his first clay court tournament of the season, Federer's followers will be hoping for an uptick in their hero's form. Here, then, are three reasons why the legend can win the Madrid Masters title for the fourth time in his career.
1. He will be well-rested
At 31 years of age and with one of the best playing records in the history of the sport, Federer has earned the right to exempt himself from as many Masters series events as he wants. The Basel-born star took advantage of that by opting not to play in Miami last month, meaning he will have had seven weeks off before the start of the Madrid Masters.
Such a hiatus can only be good for Federer. When we last saw him on court, he was struggling with a back injury in Indian Wells, and went down tamely to arch-rival Rafael Nadal. The extended break will not only give him ample time to recover, but also allow him to fine-tune his clay court game away from the glare of fan and media attention.
Playing a tournament involves so much more than simply taking to the tennis court - travel, media commitments and various admin duties can be draining for a player. Having avoided the tour circus for a month and a half, Federer will arrive in the Spanish capital rested, rejuvenated and ready to produce his best tennis.
2. He has a superb record at the Madrid Masters
It is often said that players have "favourite" tournaments, those at which they always tend to hit peak form. Wimbledon is such a tournament for Federer, and Madrid is another. In nine appearances at the Madrid Masters, he has never lost before the quarter-finals. Moreover, he has reached five finals and won three titles at the event, both records.
Granted, the Madrid Masters used to be played on indoor hard courts, but Federer has still outperformed everyone else since the change of surface in 2009. That year, he did what so few players have been able to do: beat Nadal on clay. Although he was defeated by the Spaniard in 2010 and 2011 in Madrid, both losses were closely fought affairs.
Last year, after edging Milos Raonic in a third set tie-break and posting comfortable straight sets wins over Richard Gasquet, David Ferrer and Janko Tipsarevic, Federer was at his fighting best in the final, winning a 158 minute battle with Tomas Berdych 3-6, 7-5, 7-5. Fully at ease in the Caja Májica stadium, and with the memories of countess victories fresh in his mind, the world number two will be confident that he can shine again in Madrid.
3. His biggest rivals are not at their best
There is of course some time to go before the tour swings into Madrid, and Djokovic, Nadal and Murray could indeed hit top form before then, but as things stand, there are questions marks surrounding the form and fitness of Federer's main challengers.
Djokovic suffered an ankle injury during Serbia's Davis Cup tie with the USA, and was a major doubt for Monte Carlo right up until he played his first match. He was then below par during the first two rounds, losing the opening sets against both Mikhail Youzhny and Juan Monaco. Time will tell if the Serb's decision to play on his fragile ankle might jeopardise his prospects for the remainder of the clay court season.
Andy Murray, who is determined to perform better on the dirt this year than he has done in previous seasons, looked far less comfortable in his first clay court tournament of 2013. His 6-1, 6-2 thrashing at the hands of Stanislas Wawrinka in Monaco was simply an ugly match; the Scot made 24 unforced errors and won only 48% of first serve points. While it is unlikely that Murray will play as badly in Madrid, the Scot has a lot of work to do if he hopes to challenge for the title there.
Yet again, Rafael Nadal remains the biggest obstacle in Federer's quest for glory. Since the Madrid Masters switched to clay courts, the Matador has reached three finals and won the title once. Able to count on the full support of the crowd, he will definitely be the man to beat. However, the King of Clay was pushed to three sets by Grigor Dimitrov in Monte Carlo, reminding other players, including Federer, that he is not entirely invincible on his favourite surface. And with the 500 series event in Barcelona on his schedule for next week, Nadal could play up to 10 matches in 14 days, an onerous task even for a player who isn't susceptible to knee tendonitis.
It is fair to say that a lot will have to go right for Roger Federer if he is to win a fourth title in Madrid. He will need to shake off any lingering rust very quickly, and hope for a favourable draw, because with the rankings as they are currently, he could face Djokovic, Murray and Nadal in succession. But there is no doubt that a successful title defence is possible. Another Madrid Masters trophy would put Federer back in the centre of the winners' circle, and make him a top Roland Garros contender into the bargain.
Date: 23rd April 2013, Source: Eatsleepsport