Commentary

Federer playing with rookie spirit

Updated: March 23, 2012, 10:19 PM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

Last Saturday, after he had flogged Rafael Nadal in the semifinals at Indian Wells, Roger Federer -- the hottest tennis player on the planet for the past six months -- was asked if he was back.

Federer looked a bit perplexed.

"Don't forget that I beat him in London not that long ago, only three months ago," said Federer, who defends his résumé better than any overzealous publicist could. "It's not like I haven't beat him in 10 years."

Federer, smiling as he drew laughter from the assembled media, then launched into a glass-half-full review of his recent matches with Nadal.

No one in tennis is more self-aware than Federer. He knows he is a viable threat to win any tournament, including the Sony Ericsson Open in Key Biscayne, Fla., where play is already underway.

Federer won all 16 of his record Grand Slam singles titles in a span of nearly seven years -- in only 27 events, which works out to a ludicrous .593 winning percentage. But since winning the 2010 Australian Open, he is an ugly 0-for-8. Every one of those majors was won by either Novak Djokovic or Rafael Nadal, the two men ahead of him in the ATP World Tour rankings.

This, Federer said, has left him underappreciated.

"I think I have been playing extremely well since the [2011] French Open, actually," Federer said in Indian Wells. "But people aren't giving me enough credit sometimes for how great that [2011 U.S. Open] was because I didn't win it. Same thing at Wimbledon."

Analyst Mary Carillo, who will be covering the Sony Ericsson for both Tennis Channel and CBS, could not agree more.

"The guy had two match points on Djokovic at the U.S. Open," she said earlier this week. "He was up two sets on Tsonga at Wimbledon. Some who want to ship him off into retirement would say that proves he's not Roger Federer anymore. I think it says he's still Roger Federer.

[+] EnlargeRoger Federer
Harry How/Getty ImagesThe way Roger Federer is playing, it's hard to believe he hasn't won a Grand Slam title in two years.

"I'm delighted he's playing the way he's playing. I love to see this form. He's showing that he can beat anybody right now."

Since turning 30 last August, however, the failure to win majors has consumed Fedologists, who feel his Grand Slam clock ticking away with an increasing sense of desperation.

"I think it's more the age that people always talk about right now," Federer said. "Some don't understand how you can play tennis at 30 years old, which is shocking to me, because normally that's still when you're young enough to play some of your best tennis.

"I think I'm showing that since I turned 30 last year. That's basically where my run began."

He's exactly right. Since that aforementioned U.S. Open, Federer has won 39 of 41 matches and is riding a 15-match win streak. For the record, if the seeds prevail, he would meet Djokovic in the semifinals at Miami.

"There are old 30-year-olds and young 30-year-olds, Carillo said. "This guy is a young 30. To my mind, his 30-year-old body, compared to Venus and Serena Williams, is a totally different proposition.

"And he's got a rookie's spirit. He obviously just loves being Roger Federer. What he does is what a great champion does. He doesn't mind practicing. He doesn't mind traveling -- whatever it takes to be a winner."

In those past eight majors there hasn't been a single early-round hiccup by Federer and the matches have generally been competitive. Three losses came in the quarterfinals -- to Robin Soderling, Tomas Berdych and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga -- all legitimate top-20 players when they beat him. Three came in semifinals to Djokovic, while two were at the hands of Rafa, most recently in the Australian Open semifinals.

Federer's victory at Indian Wells was his 19th ATP World Tour Masters 1000 title, tying him with Nadal for No. 1 on the all-time list. Even at his relatively advanced age, Federer has proved capable of winning six matches in the span of a week. The looming question with three majors left to play this year: Can he put together seven best-of-five matches in two weeks?

"I believe he can," Carillo said. "It's why he's still hanging around. I like Djokovic and Nadal's body language, but a lot of guys are out there grinding. Roger's playing with a certain amount of freedom and joy -- which you don't see too much.

"Even after the worst loss, I would ask Mary Joe [Fernandez, wife of Federer agent Tony Godsick] how he was doing. She'd smile at the question and say, 'You don't understand how this guy is built. He's OK.'

"He has a champion's poise. You can't sell that short. I'm still giving him a very nice looking chance to do something at a major."

It just wasn't possible when Nadal won three of the four majors in 2010 and Djokovic repeated that dominant performance last year. But at the moment, both players are not functioning at that supreme level. Djokovic lost in the semifinals at Indian Wells to John Isner and seems to be aiming for his fourth straight major at Roland Garros. Nadal has yet to win a tournament this year in three tries and appears to be struggling with confidence.

Pete Sampras is the player whose career most mirrors Federer's. He won his 13th Grand Slam singles title at Wimbledon in 2000 -- and then went eight straight majors without a victory. On his next try, Sampras won his 14th at the U.S. Open -- and promptly retired at the age of 31.

Is Federer, considering today's greater degree of difficulty with Djokovic and Nadal, playing his best tennis ever?

"I don't know," he said. "The last six months, it's been really good. I'm just happy that I'm feeling healthy and happy and willing to play. Just enjoying life, really."

That sounds like a guy who believes he can still do it.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.