- Greg Garber, Writer, Reporter
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In a spectacular span beginning with Wimbledon in 2003 and concluding with the 2010 Australian Open, Roger Federer won 16 of 27 Grand Slam singles titles.
"The numbers," said Pete Sampras, whose all-time record for major victories was broken by Federer, "are mind-boggling."
And then the stylish Swiss champion went an unthinkable 0-for-9. Even while he was going out in major quarterfinals, Federer insisted he wasn't concerned.
Last year at the All England Club, just shy of his 31st birthday, he collected his 17th Grand Slam title, defeating Andy Murray in the final.
"If there was an event he and I were born to win, it was Wimbledon," Sampras reflected at last year's U.S. Open. "He has a great belief in himself.
It's a good lesson for kids out there. The great ones struggle, but they keep working at it. Roger and I, we had the ability.
"You just have to realize you still have it."
Yeah, he's still got it.
That belief carried Federer to a terrific (and widely unexpected) 2012 season. He won more than $8.5 million and six titles and, for nearly four months, returned to the No. 1 ranking. More important in the larger scheme, he saw the four majors split four ways. His record-tying seventh Wimbledon title -- which included wins over the likely power duo of the future, Novak Djokovic and Murray, and came in the wake of Rafael Nadal's stunning second-round loss -- suggested he would continue to be a major player in 2013.
And so he is in Melbourne, Australia, trying to distance his Grand Slam legacy from his talented colleagues while still sound in body and mind.
As he has grown older and wiser, he has adjusted his approach to the majors. He skipped the Paris indoor tournament last fall to rest for the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals. After falling to Djokovic in the final, Federer vacationed for a few weeks in the Maldives, a warm island in the Indian Ocean, with his wife and 3-year-old twins; they buried him one day in the white beach sand, and the smug smile on Federer's face, caught by a photograph, indicates his priorities are in order. Indeed, his family seems to have helped him deal with some of the less appetizing demands of the sport.
Then, instead of returning home to Switzerland, Federer embarked on a 13-day exhibition tour of South America, where he was reportedly paid a total of $12 million for playing six matches, perhaps the most lucrative two-week swing the game has ever seen. And then there was his requisite four weeks of fitness training, which caused him to miss the Australian Open warm-ups.
Federer has always been ahead of the curve -- in his absolute, terrifying prime from 2004-07, he won an astonishing 11 of 16 majors -- so why should it be so surprising that he has managed to push past the breaking point of so many of his predecessors?
Bjorn Borg famously retired after the end of the season that brought him his 11th Grand Slam singles title -- at the age of 25. John McEnroe won seven majors before he turned 26, but in eight more years of playing reached only one Grand Slam final. Sampras himself had just turned 31 when he won his final tournament, the 2002 U.S. Open.
Paul Annacone coached Sampras to that glorious conquest and, as fate would have it, he is Federer's coach as he contemplates his 16th season as a professional. According to Annacone, Federer's ability to tune out the skeptics' white noise is one of his greatest talents.
"Roger's great at that," Annacone acknowledged last fall in New York. "We've talked about it since Day 1, since I came onboard two and one half years ago. I told him to get ready, because they were already talking about that stuff.
"Unfortunately, when you've set a certain standard and raised the bar to that lofty place, albeit pretty unrealistic, that's going to be the point of reference from a lay person's point of view. For Roger's naysayers the stuff that Roger was dealing with, I thought that was comical. Because it was so ridiculous.
"I mean, the guy was [ranked] No. 3 in the world."
The attention focused on Djokovic after his sensational 2011 season worked in Federer's favor, Annacone said.
"People talked about how tough it was for Novak to back up 2011," Annacone said. "Roger's been through that whole process, and now it's not a factor for him as much. He's happy with his life. He's so self-assured, generally a relaxed guy. It takes a lot to unrelax him.
"What I learned from him and Pete and Tim Henman, too, is that the elite players generally don't panic. They generally don't sensationalize. They generally don't dwell. They live and they play. And they put a process together that's pretty resilient and works over the long haul."
Added Sampras, "As players, we were a little bit different. But we both always believed. Roger was not dominant the last couple of years, but he was in a better place than I was when I was down, in a healthier place. As low as I was when I stepped on the court near the end, you just feel like you own it. You are the man."
Federer, it can be argued, might have cemented that lofty status in 2012.
Let's do the math: Federer has 17 majors, compared to 11 for Nadal, who will miss back-to-back Grand Slam events for the first time since 2004 and celebrates his 27th birthday in June. Djokovic and Murray, who both turn 26 in May, have five and one, respectively.
Nadal, recovering from a torn patella tendon in his left knee, won't have played a meaningful match in eight months if he comes back at the end of February in Acapulco as planned. Even if he managed to win three or four more French Open titles -- a huge if -- Nadal would still trail Federer. Realistically, do Djokovic and Murray have time to do it, particularly if they are always meeting in major finals in the coming years and dividing the spoils?
And there is always the possibility of another Federer title, most likely at Wimbledon, where the grass best rewards his gifts of diversity and imagination.
"I've always said he was going to win another major," ESPN analyst Darren Cahill said. "I still think he'll win another one. Maybe more."
Annacone doesn't doubt it.
"For Roger, it's just a matter of the joy of the game driving him," he said. "And the ability to play these big matches in these arenas still being fun. And ultimately knowing that he's capable of winning anything, anywhere.
"When you feel that way and you have good perspective, your big-picture view, then you're probably going to be pretty damn successful."
When Roger Federer was down and out, we were quick to write his eulogy. Everyone except Federer that is.