Roger Federer is bidding for a third title in four years at Melbourne Park and a record-extending 21st Grand Slam trophy but having not played competitive tennis since November the Swiss is keeping a lid on expectations.
Unlike his main rivals, Federer, who won his last Grand Slam in 2018 at Melbourne Park, opted out of the inaugural ATP Cup to spend more time with his family before launching his 22nd season on Tour.
The third seed’s pre-tournament news conference yesterday was dominated by questions about the ongoing bushfires in Australia and the role of the top men’s players on the air quality issue during the tournament.
“And I’m playing Steve Johnson, by the way, for those who care,” a smiling Federer told reporters. “I don’t know, I figured that’s why I’m in Australia, but that’s okay.”
His opening round opponent tomorrow — American world number 81 Johnson — won a challenger tournament in nearby Bendigo and reached the quarter-finals in the Canberra challenger last week.
When finally asked about his opening match, Federer said with a smile: “I’m not in the mood now.
“Look, it’s exactly the tricky situation right now, playing somebody who has just played a lot this week. He’s ready to go. He’s match-ready and I’m not.”
Federer’s last match was a defeat in the ATP Finals in November by Stefanos Tsitsipas, who also beat him at Melbourne Park in the fourth round last year.
“I got to really make sure I get out of the gates quick,” Federer said. “Practice has been going well. Had plenty of time to pace myself and do all the things I had to do to get ready. I hope it’s enough.
“I know it’s a super long road to victory. That’s why I got to take it one match at a time. My expectations are quite low.”
Canadian world number 103 Brayden Schnur labelled Federer and Rafa Nadal “selfish” for not taking a vocal stand for the lower-profile players who faced a difficult time this week during qualifiers due to the bushfire smoke.
“I don’t think I can do more than what I did,” Federer said. “I’m on the council. I’ve been on the tour for so long. I came through the lower ranks, the juniors.
“At the end of the day we all care for one another. We cross paths in the locker room. I understand some frustration always because this tour, this calendar, this schedule, whatever it may be, is never perfect.
“Some guys are always going to complain. But at the end of the day this is also something new with the smoke. Everybody’s got to figure it out.”
World number six Stefanos Tsitsipas was another player who was troubled by the smog, saying he had difficulty breathing even after practising indoors in Melbourne.
“I was coughing a lot, had troubles breathing for a couple of hours,” Tsitsipas said yesterday, while Canadian young gun Denis Shapovalov claimed “I wouldn’t play” if conditions deteriorated during the tournament.
“I’m 20 years old, I don’t want to risk my life, risk my health being out there playing in this condition,” he added.
In the wake of the backlash, Australian Open organisers yesterday unveiled a five-step air quality rating to determine when play should be halted, based on pollutants measured by monitoring stations throughout Melbourne Park.
Play will be stopped if the particulate matter rating (PM2.5) — the solid and liquid particles suspended in the air — hits 200, or five on the air quality scale.
Between 97 and 200 — a four rating — will trigger a discussion between medical staff and officials about halting play, with the match referee able to suspend a match if he sees fit.
The rules will apply to all outside courts and the Grand Slam’s three arenas with retractable roofs, where play will be halted until the roof is closed.
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