Switzerland's Roger Federer returns a shot to Spain's Rafael… (Henri Szwarc/Abaca Press/MCT )
Reporting from Wimbledon, England — When Roger Federer is away from Wimbledon, the tennis great who can aim a serve at a particular corner of the service box and, with Swiss precision, hit it like an archer aiming at an apple, can conjure in his mind exactly what the tournament means to him.
"For me it's the moment when I lift the Wimbledon trophy," Federer said Saturday. "That's the picture I see. If I close my eyes, that's the moment I see and feel the strongest.
"All the hard work in the preparation, staying focused and strong until the very end, to be able to lift up the trophy is a wonderful feeling. That's the picture I see."
Federer has brought that picture to life six times in his career and it's one he'd like to see again. Wimbledon begins Monday when defending champion Rafael Nadal kicks off play on Centre Court against American Michael Russell.
He is one behind Pete Sampras for most Wimbledon men's singles championships and he would very much like to break another Sampras record, as he did by winning 16 major titles, two more than the Southern Californian won from 1990 to 2002.
As the third seeded-player, Federer isn't the favorite to catch Sampras and hold for a seventh time the trophy the 29-year-old Swiss describes as "just the right size and the right heaviness, really. Doesn't feel too light or impossible to lift. It's really good. It's very nice."
Nadal is seeded No. 1 this year and it's safe to assume that the majority of tennis fans would be happy to see a reprise of the French Open final, won by Nadal over Federer, when Wimbledon reaches its conclusion July 3.
It's possible Federer would have to beat second-seeded Novak Djokovic in the semifinals. Djokovic has lost only once this year, to Federer in the French Open semifinals.
There's a certain rhythm to men's tennis this year. When it's crescendo time there's been Djokovic (winner of the Australian Open) or Nadal or Federer.
For years, since even before he first won here in 2003, Federer has spoken of his admiration for Sampras and his Wimbledon dominance. The two occasionally practice together at Sampras' Southland home, and pair up for exhibitions.
"Sometimes, still, I can't get over who Pete is and what he has achieved," Federer said.
Of Federer, Sampras said in return, "His game is beautiful. What he's accomplished is amazing. I don't think he's done yet either."
Sampras was 28 when he won Wimbledon for the last time, 31 when he earned his final Grand Slam title at the 2002 U.S. Open, and Federer has been annoyed lately with the idea he will not collect at least a 17th major title. Five slams have gone by since Federer last won one, at the 2010 Australian Open, the longest dry spell since he first won Wimbledon.
So even though he has played in 46 consecutive Grand Slam tournaments and won more than $60 million in prize money, even though he is married now and has 22-month-old twin daughters, Federer was still extraordinarily thrilled when he ended Djokovic's 43-match winning streak at the French Open and when he slid into forehands and pushed Nadal into doing the splits during the French Open final.
A year ago it was a disgruntled and dejected Federer who left Wimbledon earlier than he had since his first-round exit in 2002.
He barely survived a first-round test against little-known Colombian Alejandro Falla. Federer found himself down two sets before he recovered for a 5-7, 4-6, 6-4, 7-6 (1), 6-0 win that he called "a struggle."
In the second round Federer had to hustle to get by a ponytailed Serbian qualifier, Ilija Bozoljac, 6-3, 6-7 (4), 6-4, 7-6 (5).
And after he lost to Tomas Berdych in the quarterfinals, 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 6-4, Federer seemed lacking in grace when he called himself "a little bit unlucky" and complained of back and thigh aches that he had not mentioned after any previous match.
"Something was missing" last year, Federer said. "I was just a bit passive, just not believing in my shot-making. It wasn't meant to be. I had some things I had to battle with during the tournament. That hasn't happened since."
When he was done talking Saturday, Federer straightened his bright white tennis cap and smoothed the crease in his pressed sweat pants. Perfection is not easy to acquire, but when Federer comes to Wimbledon he expects nothing less.