Roger Federer prepares to serve the ball to Mikhail Youzhny during their… (Carmen Jaspersen / AFP/Getty…)
In a normal season, Roger Federer's come-from-behind victory over 29th-ranked Mikhail Youzhny in the best-of-three final of a modest tournament in Halle, Germany, last week wouldn't have drawn much notice.
But this hasn't been a normal season for 17-time Grand Slam champion Federer, who hadn't won any of the previous seven tournaments he had played this year.
That victory — which also required him to rally past Tommy Haas in the semifinals — was Federer's first tournament title in 10 months since he defeated Novak Djokovic on hard courts in Cincinnati in August. That's a nearly unthinkable drought for one of the best players of this generation or any other, a man who spent more than 300 weeks of his career ranked No. 1 in the world and has reached a record 36 consecutive Grand Slam quarterfinals.
Only this year, as he approached his 32nd birthday, had the unthinkable become reality as he lost to 39th-ranked Frenchman Julien Benneteau in February at the quarterfinals at Rotterdam, Netherlands, to 16th-ranked Kei Nishikori of Japan in the third round on clay in Madrid in May and in straight sets to No. 8 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga of France in the quarterfinals of the French Open.
Federer's brilliance seemed dimmed, his mobility hampered by a bad back, but he insisted the will to win still burned within him.
"I have won a lot in my career, but not recently," he told reporters in Halle.
"I am happy it worked for me today. I was satisfied with my game in the past 10 months. Maybe people thought I was playing badly. That was not the case. I was playing well, but when it mattered, the others were just better."
Simply playing well won't be good enough for Federer, now ranked No. 3 in the world, to celebrate the 10th anniversary of his first Wimbledon triumph by winning for a record eighth time and second in a row.
The draw for the tournament, which opens Monday, placed Federer in the same half as Spaniard Rafael Nadal, whom Federer hasn't beaten in a Grand Slam event since the 2007 Wimbledon final. Because Wimbledon's seeding system puts extra weight on grass-court results over the prior year — and because Nadal took a seven-month break to heal his ailing knees after an upset loss to Lukas Rosol in the second round at Wimbledon last year — Nadal was seeded fifth despite a 43-2 record this season. That means Federer could face Nadal as soon as the quarterfinals.
Djokovic is seeded No. 1, with No. 4 David Ferrer looming as his biggest obstacle before the semifinals. "Some people would say I was lucky with the draw, but it's a Grand Slam, so I don't think there is any easy way to the title," Djokovic told the BBC.
Britain's Andy Murray, who defeated Federer in the Olympic gold-medal match last August on Wimbledon's Centre Court, is seeded No. 2 and is in the same half of the draw as Nadal and Federer. He carries the burden of trying to become the first British man to win at Wimbledon since Fred Perry prevailed in 1936.
"As a player you can't get too obsessed about the draw," Murray said on his blog on the BBC's website. "I'd sign up to be in the quarterfinals against Rafa tomorrow if someone offered me that.
"You could say if I get through that match, then the semifinal might not be as tough, but if you want to win the biggest tournaments, you have to beat the best players in the world. It doesn't really matter where they are in the draw."
Federer took the same approach, telling reporters in London he will simply play the hand he has been dealt.
"It's not an easy draw for Rafa, it's not an easy draw for me, it's not an easy draw for Andy," said Federer, who will open at Centre Court on Monday against 47th-ranked Victor Hanescu of Romania.
"I am very much focused on my first round. If then the quarterfinals with Rafa would come along, it's great news. I'm super-excited. We've had some monster matches here in the past."
Federer cautioned against taking anything for granted, saying there's no great drop-off in the next four beyond the Big Four of himself, Djokovic, Nadal and Murray.
"It was always going to be difficult to win Wimbledon. Nobody said it was going to be a walk in the park," he said.
"I'm not here to get to the third round, I'm here to do exceptional stuff and make the latest stages of the tournament, going through incredible atmospheres out on Centre Court. It's very important to me that I can compete in the big tournaments. Sometimes you think you can just rake in the wins, then you remember how hard it is to win a Grand Slam. I know that better than anyone."