Federer elevates season targets after stunning start to 2017

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Roger Federer celebrates his 6-4, 7-5 win over Stan Wawrinka in the men's final of the BNP Paribas Open tennis tournament in Indian Wells, California, USA. Photo / AP.

In a sports world filled with scandal, recrimination and bile, Roger Federer's return to the top of men's tennis at the age of 35 represents a refreshingly uplifting tale.

Late on Sunday night, Federer blitzed his compatriot Stan Wawrinka in the final of Indian Wells - the Masters Series event which constitutes the nearest thing to a fifth slam. His statistics are extraordinary in themselves: just 80 minutes for the match, zero sets dropped in the tournament, and already six top-ten wins since the start of the season. Bizarrely, the only loss he has suffered in 14 matches came against the most obscure opponent: world No. 116 Evgeny Donskoy.

But numbers, as ever, tell only part of the story for Federer. You have to watch him to appreciate what he is achieving. Because he has returned from his six-month lay-off with an entirely new weapon: a lethal, high-speed backhand that unleashed a barrage of clean winners against Wawrinka on Sunday night. In backhand-to-backhand exchanges with Wawrinka, whose single-hander had previously been viewed as the best in the world, it was Federer who consistently came off the better.

This is a significant development. Federer's serve, forehand, volley and slice were already world class, but his old top-spin backhand - while undeniably elegant - was never going to intimidate elite players. That has changed dramatically in 2017 and suddenly there are no chinks for the opposition to aim for. Unless he is fractionally off his game - or, perhaps, playing on clay - it is hard to see how you beat him.

The sight of anyone playing top-level tennis at 35 - five years older than Andy Roddick was when he retired - is an anomaly in itself. The Williams sisters - who both have their own health issues - are the only current examples in the women's game. Federer now finds himself in an even stronger position: not just existing at this level, but dominating. On Sunday night, he became the oldest man to win a Masters Series event.

After almost a third of the season, the Race to London - which consists of rankings points earned since the beginning of the year - shows Federer opening up the same sort of lead that Novak Djokovic has done in recent seasons. He has 3,045 points, almost twice as many as the man in second place, Rafael Nadal (1,635), whom he trounced on Wednesday night for the loss of just five games.

During the post-match interviews on Sunday, Federer confessed that he had never expected his comeback to go so well. "It's maybe not quite as surprising as Australia," he told Sky Sports, "but still unbelievably surprising for me that I was able to back it up here in America."

Starting the season at No. 16 in the world after a six-month lay-off caused by knee trouble, he had arrived in Melbourne knowing that an early defeat would send him plunging to the mid-30s, outside the seedings for even the biggest events. After Indian Wells, he has climbed to No. 6 instead.

"This was not part of the plan, to win Australia and Indian Wells," Federer said "The goal was to be top 8 by after Wimbledon, so I'm there much, much faster. I will make the plan for the remainder of the season, especially for the clay, after Miami, and then see also what the goals are because the goals are clearly changing after this dream start."

Inevitably, Federer's millions of fans are already debating how long it will be before he returns to No. 1. Admittedly, he has not played either of the men who dominated the 2016 season - Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic - since his comeback began. But both Murray and Djokovic have withdrawn from Miami this week citing matching elbow injuries. The next two leading challengers would seem to be Nadal and Wawrinka, over whom he has already established a hold this season.

The victory ceremony on Sunday night featured an emotional speech from Wawrinka, whose tears demonstrated how badly he had wanted to claim this title. "I would like to congratulate Roger," he said. "He is laughing, he's an a------, but it's okay. I lost some tough ones against you but when you played the final in Australia I was still your biggest fan, so congrats on your comeback and congrats for today. Anyone who loves tennis loves to watch you so it's always good to see you back at that level and hopefully for many years." Amen to that.

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