Colloquially, Roger Federer is still a part of the illustrious Big Four in men's tennis. Numerically, however, he isn't.
Going into the 2014 season, Federer is in a spot that he hasn't been in since 2002—No. 6. Eleven years, 17 Grand Slams and 302 weeks at No. 1 later, Federer is once again on the outside of the Top Five looking in.
All eyes will be on the 32-year-old during the 2014 tennis season to see if this will be a year of redemption or continued regression.
One thing is for sure—it's been a steep fall. Late in the 2012 season, Federer was No. 1 in the world. He began 2013 ranked No. 2. But in 2013, he was a pedestrian 45-17 with one title.
He started out the season pretty well, with a semifinal run at the Australian Open that ended with a five-set loss to Murray, but that would turn out to arguably be the highlight of his campaign.
He lost meekly in the French Open quarterfinals to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
He was shockingly upset in the second round of his beloved Wimbledon by unheralded Ukrainian Sergiy Stakhovsky.
Then, after a terrible summer that saw him play on clay, experiment with racket sizes and suffer through a bad back injury, he lost in the fourth round of the U.S. Open to Tommy Robredo.
Federer did manage to finish the year on a strong note, making the semifinals of the BNP Paribas Masters in Bercy and the semifinals of the World Tour Finals in London, taking out No. 5 Juan Martin del Potro in both tournaments.
Still he finished the year No. 6, looking up at the other contenders. As he struggled, the other members of the Big Four—Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal—all won Grand Slams. Even David Ferrer made the French Open final.
The truth has become unavoidable—Father Time has caught up with Federer.
Still, as calls for retirement circle from pundit to pundit, and fans are left holding onto moral victories such as sets off of top players and sporadic strokes of genius, Federer is working harder than ever. And if his offseason preparations and rediscovered confidence are any indication, there could be more glory on the horizon.
As reported by Linda Pierce of The Age, Federer told reporters on a conference call with Australian media that he was very confident about his form, and thinks that he is actually continuing to improve every year he is on tour.
I always believe that I have improved over the last ten years, you know, that I've not gone backwards, and I've been able to win (the Australian Open) ten years ago, so I always feel as I move forward I am a more complete player, a better player.
That's why I will always believe that I can win, as long as my body is holding up and mentally I'm really hungry traveling the world and playing matches, and that is the case right now - I'm very healthy and training extremely hard.
Federer's moves this offseason certainly showcase a desire to keep getting better. He's foregoing the holidays in Switzerland to keep training for the Australian summer in Dubai, and he has confirmed that he is once again experimenting with larger racket frames.
He will be starting his 2014 season much earlier than usual, committing to the Brisbane International tournament which starts December 29, 2013.
He even spent a week during December practicing and consulting with the great Stefan Edberg, and Edberg has told reporters that he would be open to coaching Federer.
Federer is certainly not content to just rest on his laurels. His problem, however, is one that won't go away with a few tweaks—he is 32 years old and has played in 1,138 ATP or Grand Slam matches in his career. Meanwhile, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray are all in their prime and showing no signs of complacency.
Federer was 0-7 against the other members of the Big Four in 2013, a stat that he will have to improve upon in 2014. He has Australian Open semifinal points to defend to start the year, and as his ranking drops, the number of top players he has to get through to win titles will only increase.
The reality is, Federer might not ever officially make it back to the Big Four rankings-wise. The task certainly isn't getting any easier as time moves on. However, by reputation and resume alone, Federer more than carries his weigh at the top of the ATP. Fans want to watch him. Writers want to write about him. Opponents circle his name in the draw. Tournament directors are desperate for his presence.
He's one of the best ever, and that, combined with his class and dedication, have earned him a perennial spot in the Big Four whether or not it's justified by his ranking or the impact he's making on the court.
Though the climb back up the ladder is treacherous, there are certainly reasons to believe that Federer's 2014 will be an improvement. If his back stays healthy, there will likely be more good days than bad, with a few moments of greatness sprinkled in between. One of those moments could certainly come against Nadal, Djokovic or Murray.
His days of domination are in the rear-view mirror, but with all the talent he possesses and the hard work he puts in, there's a new label left for Federer to embrace—spoiler.