WIMBLEDON — Only a month ago, things looked a bit bleak for Roger Federer.
After undergoing the first surgery of his career to correct a knee injury incurred while giving his twin daughters a bath — “One stupid move,” he acknowledged Saturday — a chronically cranky back forced him to pass on Paris.
Thus, his record streak of consecutive Grand Slam appearances ended at 65. So where, exactly, did Federer, who’s fast approaching the awkward age of 35, find himself?
On Saturday, back in the comfort and safety of the All England Club’s pristine grounds, he reminded us all was well with the 17-time major champion, as is his back.
“Look, this back has won me 88 titles,” Federer said, smiling during his first press conference of the fortnight, “so I’m OK with that back. It’s OK if it messes around with me sometimes.
“I think I got into a tough spell there. I just felt I had to stop everything by not playing Paris, reset basically, essentially. I don’t want to say `start from zero,’ but just reset from there and make another push for Wimbledon.”
Federer was his regal self, easily, breezily holding court with reporters, wearing a shirt emblazoned with SW19, Wimbledon’s postcode.
In retrospect, he said, skipping the French Open was an easy decision.
“Because,” he added, “it was for Wimbledon. It was for the rest of the season. It was for my life, it was for the rest of my career. That’s more important than one or two or three tournaments, really.”
Federer correctly named No. 1-ranked Novak Djokovic and No. 2 Andy Murray as “the big favorites” to win this tournament. But for those of you who aren’t quite as keen on Federer’s chances, there is evidence that the ATP World Tour’s No. 3-ranked player might well be in the mix come the second week.
For instance, Federer has:
Won seven Wimbledon titles, matching the all-time record of Pete Sampras and William Renshaw (circa 1881-89).
Hoisted 15 championship trophies on grass, five more than Sampras, who is next in line.
Produced a sparkling, best-ever 147-22 (.870) record on the green stuff.
Ah, a wonderful resume, you say. But what has Federer done for us lately?
Playing back-to-back events in Stuttgart and Halle, Germany, Federer was solid, if not completely commanding. He won three matches in Stuttgart to reach the semifinals, losing to rising Austrian Dominic Thiem, who had beaten him the last time out in Rome as well. Federer also reached the final four in Halle, falling to teenager Alexander Zverev.
For Federer, it was less about the results than the fact he emerged physically intact.
“I think really for me was to get some confidence and some knowledge of where I was going to be in those seven matches in 10 days in Stuttgart and Halle,” Federer said. “I think that was crucial for me going into Wimbledon knowing, ‘OK, I passed that test, the body can take that amount of tennis, four matches back to back to back.’
“All of a sudden you’re coming into Wimbledon with more confidence, more understanding of where you’re at. Now we’ll see.”
Indeed, starting on Monday against Guido Pella of Argentina, we will.
The draw was not entirely unkind to Federer, who is in the top half and wouldn’t see Djokovic until the semifinals. To get there, however, he’ll likely have to get through No. 30 seed Alexandr Dolgopolov (third round), No. 16 Gilles Simon (fourth round) and No. 5 Kei Nishikori (quarterfinals). For what it’s worth, Wimbledon is Nishikori’s worst-performing Slam. So, this feels doable.
“Clearly I’m not thinking of the title right away,” Federer said, coyly. “It’s too far ahead. It’s too far.
“I need to focus on myself, getting myself into those positions, meaning second week, growing momentum, you know, the whole thing starts rolling then hopefully.”
It’s easy to forget that, despite his recent struggles and the hard fact he won his last major here four years ago, Federer was in the final the past two years.
An hour after his news conference, Federer walked swiftly with a colleague through a nearly empty international press room. There was a level of excitement in his voice, an undeniable bounce in his step.
At Wimbledon, anyway, he doesn’t sound or look like an old man.