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‘I was always going to come back,’ says Roger Federer ahead of Australian Open

The Guardian logo The Guardian 15-01-2017 Kevin Mitchell in Melbourne
Roger Federer, who missed the second half of 2016 with knee problems, serves during a practice session ahead of the Australian Open in Melbourne. © AFP/Getty Images Roger Federer, who missed the second half of 2016 with knee problems, serves during a practice session ahead of the Australian Open in Melbourne.

Gambling, a national obsession here in Australia, has morphed inexorably into the invisible enemy of tennis, lurking in small towns across the vast continent, where obscure players with little money and shredded ambition are being tempted to risk the remnants of meagre careers for short-term financial gain. A slow drip of more allegations of match-fixing has seeped into the fabric of the Australian game over the past week, as well as in minor tournaments elsewhere, 12 months after a two-pronged investigation by the BBC and BuzzFeed threw the 2016 Australian Open into a fit of sweating introspection.

When the 2017 tournament begins on Monday, the talk will be of crunching forehands, the heat (another boiling couple of days are in prospect, before more temperate conditions midweek), how deep the 35-year-old Roger Federer can go in his comeback and whether or not Andy Murray can hold Novak Djokovic at bay as No.1 in the world. However, there was no escaping the dark side on Saturday.

The Tennis Integrity Unit (TIU) announced the conviction of another small-time miscreant, the Romanian doubles battler ranked 1,645 in the world, Mihaita Damian, who received a 12-month ban and €5,000 ($AU7095) fine for illegally betting on matches in 2011 and 2013, none involving himself. This is the tennis equivalent of picking pockets, as opposed to robbing the Bank of England.

Also nicked was the toweringly anonymous Australian Calum Puttergill, suspended for six months and fined $AU10,000  for betting-related corruption between May 2012, and November 2014. “Mr Puttergill, 23, has a current doubles ranking of 891 and 1,207 in singles,” the TIU announced, like a welfare officer reporting to Petty Sessions.

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Five days ago, the 23-year-old Romanian Alexandru-Daniel Carpen was banned for life for match-fixing in 2013. Fans struggling to recognise the name should know the 30-year-old Carpen hit a career-high singles ranking of 1,088. In 2007.

But it is the perception that leaves the deeper bruise on the sport. There have been a slew of little-known Australians uncovered as well over the past two years, and freshly condemned and punished this week – including Nick Lindahl, Brandon Walkin and Isaac Frost – none of them gangsters, all of them desperate or naive.

“Generally, I think the ATP and all the authorities are doing a good job in tracking down potential match-fixing matches,” Djokovic said on Saturday ahead of his first match on Tuesday, against the Spaniard Fernando Verdasco. “Yes, there are some, on a lower level in the lower category of the professional tournaments. Ideally, we don’t want to see any kind of match-fixing occurrences and situations, but unfortunately they do occur from time to time. I don’t think there are too many.”

Federer, whose advance to sainthood can only be delayed by temporal inconveniences like playing tennis for a living until he cannot stand the sight of a racket, was suitably magisterial. “We’re going to get a [TIU] report back in a couple months, which is great,” he said. “That’s going to change the sport for the better. The good thing is that it’s really only zero point something per cent of players that actually have done something over the course of so many matches and so many players. We’ve done actually OK.”

But he is here for the tennis, as he gently reminded his inquisitors. A year ago in Melbourne, having already left the tournament, he moved with uncharacteristic awkwardness twisting a bath tap for one of his four children and did enough damage to his knee to require surgery that has kept him out of the game since Wimbledon. His army of fans will be relieved to learn he is as keen and bouncy as a spring lamb.

On Monday Federer opens his 18th Australian campaign against a qualifier – with another to follow in the second round. He truly is blessed – but Murray, who has a trickier opener against Illya Marchenko, awaits him in the quarters, and there the fairytale might end. It does not bother the ever-smiling Swiss.

“I was always going to come back because my knee wasn’t so bad,” he said. “I never thought to miss the Australian Open a year later. But, after Wimbledon [where he went out in the semi-finals to Milos Raonic, hurting his knee again], the race was on for Australia.”

Federer was studiously conservative in his recovery programme. Whether his legs are as keen for the fight as his spirit, we will discover in the coming days.

Djokovic, meanwhile, is upbeat after a spiritual and physical malaise that saw Murray take his crown and dent his confidence towards the end of last season. “I couldn’t ask for a better start of the season,” Djokovic said of his recent form, “saving some match points in the semi-finals [in Doha], playing a really exciting match against Verdasco, then the next day against Andy. I got a lot of match play.”

But he does not want a re-run of Doha against Verdasco. “I hope I will not get to the stage where I have to defend [five] match points,” he said. “Fernando is a very complete player on any surface. On a given day, if things go right, he can beat anybody on any surface. Against Nadal last year in five sets, he won first round.”

Beyond Verdasco lies Denis Istomin, possibly Kyle Edmund, a revitalised Grigor Dimitrov, the youngest player in the top 10, Dominic Thiem, then, in all probability, either Nadal or Raonic before he gets a chance to defend his title in the final – with most fans of the sport hoping for another showdown with Murray.

“I can’t call it a nightmare draw,” Djokovic said. “I just see it as a huge challenge. I hope I’ll be able to deliver. Nobody is invincible. I never thought of myself as a superior player on the court, even though, of course, at times I was very confident. I was winning a lot of matches. [But] you can get over-confident. That’s why I don’t want to get into that state of mind.”

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