Taking a cue from World Cup soccer, pundits branded the bottom half of the Indian Wells Masters 1000 draw the "Group of Death." But what's that to a man who leads a charmed life? A guy like Roger Federer?
Here we are at the semifinal stage, and Federer lives on, while his fellow Grand Slam champions in that loaded quarter have all stumbled out. Resurgent 14-time major champ Rafael Nadal, who was seeded No. 5? He was crushed by Federer in the fourth round. No. 2 Novak Djokovic? He was bombed off the court by Aussie sensation Nick Kyrgios at the same stage, which left Federer right smack in the rising star's crosshairs.
Kyrgios' own demise was a slow and painful one. He succumbed to an illness thought to be food poisoning Thursday night and withdrew from the tournament just a few hours before he was to meet Federer on Friday.
Once again, it seems that it's good to be Roger Federer.
That's especially true at this stage of the 35-year-old, 18-time Grand Slam champion's career because Federer needs all the help he can get to keep banking rankings points for the two upcoming Grand Slam tournaments. Because of his long, injury-induced layoff, and despite his recent victory in the Australian Open, Federer has slipped to No. 10. That means he could meet the very top players before the quarterfinals because of the seeding structure. He needs to get at least into the top eight to avoid them that early.
Federer's renaissance this year has been as surprising as it's been dynamic -- and successful. But he also needs rankings points in these two Masters 1000 events (Indian Wells and Miami) because the clay-court segment is fast approaching.
Last year, Federer made a tactical decision to leave the heavy lifting in that segment to his rivals, hoping to remain fresh -- and perhaps capitalize on their fatigue -- when the tour returned to his beloved grass. His age, knee injury and relative disadvantage when facing the likes of Nadal and Djokovic on clay also must have played a role in his scheduling.
Federer played just five matches on red clay last year, and he skipped the French Open entirely. It paid off. Despite his bum knee he made the semis in three grass events, including Wimbledon. Federer Version 3.5 is an attacking, offensive machine these days. It suggests that he might have even higher expectations for the grass-court season, which might further dampen his enthusiasm for clay.
But Federer's mission would be rendered easier if he punched through into the top eight in the coming weeks. The good news for his fans is that he will almost certainly do so. He has no points to defend, having missed both North American Masters events last year. He could gain as many as 2,000 points. He could end up anywhere between No. 4 and 8 by the end of Miami.
Federer has had tough luck in Miami since he last won the tournament in 2006, beating the man now in his coaching box, Ivan Ljubicic. It seemed he had a charmed life then, and it seems he still has one now.