World No.3 Roger Federer has forced his way back to the top table, and is playing with the high rollers again after his run to the final at Wimbledon this year, so why do I get the feeling that he is not being treated like a top four player anymore?
There is not the same sign of pressure when the Swiss steps out onto court, which is a result of the fact that he has not won a Grand Slam in over two years, and he can now afford to let the likes of Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray worry about a “favourites tag” going into the biggest tournaments.
Looking towards the US Open, which begins on August 25th, it will not be deemed a failure if the 32-year-old is unable to win a sixth title in New York, and you could go as far as to say that he is under less pressure than any of the other players in the top ten, who are either still expected to win at the top level or who have not yet had the experience of reaching the top level.
The dark moments of 2013, which included a second round loss at Wimbledon, a fourth round loss at the US Open and only one singles title in Halle, the lowest number of titles he has won in a year since 2001, seem to have been the wake-up call he needed.
A new dawn
Britain’s Andy Murray has lead the new trend of appointing coaches that were Grand Slam winners themselves, as Czech-born Ivan Lendl lead him to his first two major successes, and Federer decided to follow suit, with his new partnership with six-time winner Grand Slam winner Stefan Edberg of Sweden breeding results so far.
The most noticeable tactical change in Federer’s game has been a more attack-minded approach, with more charges to the net and serve and volley moves being evident, but it is the change in demeanour that has provoked a turnaround in form.
Federer exerts the same attitude that his supporters seem to at the moment. It is a vibe that suggests that he may not find that illusive 18th Grand Slam, but so what? If you have already won all four majors and you are viewed by some as the greatest of all time, then what is there to be worked up about?
An example of the change in expectations is his fourth round defeat to Latvian Ernests Gulbis at the French Open in June. When he lost to Sweden’s Robin Soderling in the quarter-finals at the same event in 2010, it was the first time he had failed to reach the semi-finals of any Grand Slam since losing to Gustavo Kuerten in the third round at Roland Garros in 2004. There was no sign of the shock or disappointment that followed that loss, even if Gulbis was ranked 13 places below him.
Fall from grace
After that shock defeat to Soderling, other notable low-points followed. Federer also failed to reach the Wimbledon semi-finals for the first time since 2002 that year, while the calendar year of 2011 was the first where he failed to win a Grand Slam since 2002.
Jo-Wilfiried Tsonga became the first player to beat him from two-sets down, when a collapse in the quarter-finals at Wimbledon in 2011 allowed the Frenchman back into the match, and the same thing happened against Djokovic in the semi-finals at the US Open later that year.
If you compare his five-set loss to Djokovic in the Wimbledon final this year to his equally compelling five-set defeat to Rafael Nadal in the Australian Open final in 2009, where he broke down into tears in his after-match speech, defeat seems to have a different meaning now.
A defeat in any Grand Slam used to be a cause for concern, but being able to compete against the number one seed was greeted with whole-hearted appraisal from supporters as well as the media.
That is the key difference in the modern Federer. He has tasted the grass that isn’t greener. It is a far cry from the days when he was deemed to have had an unsuccessful year by winning a solitary Grand Slam, as was the case in 2008, when he won his fifth US Open title after losing in the final at the French Open and Wimbledon.
It could be argued that he became a victim of his own success, because he would make headline news with every Grand Slam that he failed to win, but it is quite the opposite now.
Return to form
Federer started 2014 at sixth in the ATP world rankings, his lowest position since 2003, but signs of improvement were evident in his run to the semi-finals at the Australian Open, where he beat Murray in four sets in the quarter-finals, the first top four player he had beaten in a Grand Slam since beating Murray at the Wimbledon final in 2012, his last Grand Slam triumph.
The trophies haven’t exactly started returning to his cabinet en-masse, but he did manage to win titles in Dubai in March and Halle in June, while improving his ranking by three positions.
Federer said in 2012 that he was hoping to carry on playing at least until the 2016 Olympics in Rio, where he would hope to win add the only honour missing from an illustrious career, a gold medal.
There is no doubt that could happen, and it is impossible to rule out Federer winning another Grand Slam, even possibly at the US Open this year, but realistically, the semi-finals are likely to be his aim, and there is the case in point.
Trophy presentations and ruthless efficiency have been replaced by pats on the back and nods of approval for the champion that is still producing the goods.
While Djokovic and Nadal will not settle for anything less than a tournament victory at Flushing Meadows, one thing that could put the fear of death into them is a top class player who has no fear of losing to them, and that will be Federer’s destructive weapon going into the back end of his career.