The return of the regal Roger Federer
He was leading Novak Djokovic two sets to love in their U.S. Open semifinal when the long, inevitable arm of gravity pulled Roger Federer back to earth. He had just turned 30, and when Djokovic beat him on the way to his third major title of the year, Federer looked, well, old.
It was the second straight Grand Slam event in which Federer had lost his nerve; at Wimbledon, he blew an eerily similar 2-0 lead against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
Most Match Wins
1) Jimmy Connors (USA) 1,242 2) Ivan Lendl (CZE/USA) 1,071 3) Guillermo Vilas (ARG) 923 4) John McEnroe (USA) 875 5) Andre Agassi (USA) 870 6) Roger Federer (SUI) 807
The logical conclusion: Federer was done. He hadn't won a tournament since January (in Doha) and with Djokovic following Rafael Nadal as a three-time major winner in 2011 -- and Andy Murray usurping his No. 3 ATP World Tour ranking -- maybe it was time to admit the truth.
After a five-week sabbatical, Federer returned with a vengeance. He won two Davis Cup matches against Australia, took the title in his hometown of Basel, Switzerland, floored the field in the BNP Paribas Masters event in Paris, then accelerated through the finish line, improbably winning the Barclays ATP World Tour finals in London.
The month of November delivered three titles and a sterling 17-0 record. To borrow from the late, great Mark Twain, reports of Federer's professional death were greatly exaggerated. It was, he declared after winning his record sixth year-end title, the strongest finish of his career.
Brad Gilbert saw it firsthand as an ESPN analyst.
"It was like a computer," Gilbert said between flights on his way home to California. "After that devastating loss at the Open, he hits the refresh button. One thing I noticed this week, he has a twinkle in his eye.
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"I think he likes it when people think things have passed him by. I think there's another chapter left in the novel."
Federer has 16 Grand Slam singles titles, the all-time record, but 2011 was his first year without a major since 2002.
"Sure, to win Grand Slams would be nice," Federer said in London. "I've missed out on a few occasions now this year, and maybe also some last year. So I feel like it might be around the corner. Maybe not. The other players obviously have a role to play in this."
Obviously. In fact, at this stage, Federer finds himself in the awkward position of the NFL's New York Jets, among other teams. Three times in a span of four years (2004-07) he won three Grand Slam titles, but like the Jets in their quest for the playoffs, it now seems clear that Federer will need some help to win that 17th major.
In London, Nadal was distracted, saving himself for this week's Davis Cup final against Argentina. Murray was injured and Djokovic looked exhausted after authoring a magnificent 71-8 season.
Federer, based on his past two Slams, could have gone quietly against Tsonga in the Barclays final. He actually served for the match in the second set and held a match point before winning 6-3, 6-7 (6), 6-3 to become the oldest year-end titlist.
"When he lost that second set, with a [match point], 99 percent of the guys lose that match in the third," Gilbert said. "Winning that match shows me something. You're going to see some more oomph out of Roger in 2012."
After going 3-9 against top-10 players through the U.S. Open, Federer won all seven of his matches against the top 10 afterward.[+] EnlargeJason Nevader/Getty ImagesCan Roger Federer maintain his Slam form in his 30's the way Andre Agassi did?
"I think he's going to have a big year next year," Gilbert said. "A Slam? Yeah. I thought he'd have to do something different to win one this year. Change a racket or something drastic. But he just kept doing what he does. I mean, the guy never sweats."
Gilbert believes that Federer can win a major next year. He also thinks Juan Martin del Potro, after struggling with injuries, will collect his second. With Nadal the perennial favorite at Roland Garros, that leaves Djokovic and Murray to fight for the remaining title.
This year's WTA produced four different major champions. Gilbert can see it happening on the ATP side for the first time since 2003, when Andre Agassi, Nadal, Federer and Andy Roddick sliced the pie four ways.
Gilbert, who coached Agassi, sees some parallels with Federer.
"Roger can take a lot of stock in what Andre did seven years ago," Gilbert said. "He was in the finals of the U.S. Open at the age of 35. He won the Aussie Open at the age of 32. I think Roger's in better physical shape than Andre.
"I can see him playing until he's 35."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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