- LZ Granderson, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
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It's been a while since we've seen Roger Federer cry at the end of a tough match.
It's been a while since we've seen him be short with a chair umpire or get angry with himself.
And it's been a while since we've seen Federer look this damn good.
Life is so much easier when it's not being lived in a pressure cooker.
I am as happy as anyone to see Federer back in such great form. Not only because he is one of the most beautiful players to watch but because most of last year it didn't appear as if the old man had this kind of tennis left in him.
Twice the world saw Federer get bounced in Grand Slams after holding two-set leads, including coughing up a couple match points on his serve against Novak Djokovic at the U.S. Open.
He went 10 months without winning a title.
And he turned 30.
After getting crushed 6-3, 6-2 by Rafael Nadal in Miami in the midst of the title-less period, Federer insisted, "I have many more years left."
True but after that shellacking, we all wondered what those years would look like. It seemed far more likely that the 16-time Grand Slam champion would slip in the rankings in 2012 rather than overtake Rafael Nadal at No. 2. Even Federer had his doubts.
"They were multiple tough losses [in 2011], but I decided to face the facts," Federer said in December. "OK, some guys are playing better than you "
So why don't we see the tears anymore? He has learned to let go. Why doesn't he appear terribly upset after being upset at a tournament? He has learned to accept his time is passing. That's why no one expected a 30-3 record in 2012 heading into the home stretch of Rome. He has learned life not being the favorite is not all that bad.
Let Nadal and Djokovic deal with all the pressure to be the best. To stay the best. To recapture what was taken. To fight all of the other internal battles that afflict athletes in their prime trying to establish their legacies. With nothing more to prove -- or really expected -- Federer can now enter tournaments with the freedom to play beautiful tennis which has, ironically, placed him in a position to be the best player in the world again.
Since the U.S. Open -- which at one point appeared to be the final nail in the coffin in which Federer's best stuff laid -- he has gone 45-3, including beating his chief rival, Nadal, twice in straight sets. The four titles he has this year already match the number he won all of last year. And if Djokovic doesn't win three Slams this year, Federer very well could break Pete Sampras' record of 286 weeks at the top. Oh, and by the way, one man has won three Slams in back-to-back years, and I think we all know who that man is.
And yet, despite his high level of play, hardly anyone expects Federer to win a Slam this year. All of the major talk is still about Nadal and Djokovic. At least one Las Vegas betting site thinks the odds of Juan Martin del Potro winning the French is better than Federer's.
How sweet is that?
While he has the luxury of chasing Slams and the top ranking for a couple more years, this will be his last realistic shot of winning the Olympic gold he so desperately wants. It's hard to imagine him winning that gold, if he doesn't win Wimbledon (both will be contested at the same venue and will feature the same players).
He's been playing well out of the favorite spotlight. Can he maintain that internal calm, knowing this is likely the last shot at his Olympic dreams?
A lot has to go right for Federer to return to No. 1, starting with defending the points he collected after his surprise run to the French Open final last year. But by virtue of Federer's good but not great 2011, he has the opportunity to make up significant ground.
Thus far in 2012, the pressure hasn't been on him. That's about to change.
Roger Federer has been playing well out of the favorite spotlight. Can he maintain that internal calm as his last shot at his Olympic dreams approaches or if he gets within striking distance of the No. 1 ranking?