In case you were wondering, Roger Federer's still got it.
The 17-time Grand Slam champion proved this week that he still has elite tennis left in him when he defeated No. 2 Novak Djokovic and No. 6 Tomas Berdych to win the Dubai Tennis Championships. It was his sixth title in Dubai and his 78th title overall.
As most things are this late in his legendary career, this victory was very significant for Federer. It broke the tie that he had with John McEnroe to put him alone in third place overall for the most ATP titles in history, behind only Jimmy Connors and Ivan Lendl. It also marked the 14th straight year that he has won at least one title.
Beyond the numbers, this title was important for Federer and his morale. Even though Dubai was just an ATP 500 event—a third-tier tournament in the tennis hierarchy—it was Federer's biggest title in nearly two years.
He did it all with moments of pure brilliance and a newfound combination of grit and patience that has allowed him to get passed the inevitable late-career rough patches.
His upset over Djokovic in the semifinals grabbed headlines, and then his win in the final, 3-6, 6-4, 6-3 over an in-form Berdych, made a statement to his competitors and fans that this year isn't going to be a repeat of 2013. Federer is not going to continue to go meekly down the mountain of athletic decline. He is putting in the work, and it is paying off.
After his 3-6, 6-3, 6-2 win over Djokovic, ATPWorldTour.com broke down Federer's great start to 2014:
Having beaten No. 4 Andy Murray in the Australian Open quarter-finals, it is the first time in his career that Federer has prevailed against two Top 5 players before March. The Basel native began working with Stefan Edberg as his coach at the start of the season, as well as using a larger racquet head. The changes saw him reach the Brisbane final and the Australian Open semi-finals and have given back to Federer some of the belief in himself he felt he was lacking on the big points in matches.
Federer's never going to be as dominant as he was when he was 25, but his recent victories over top-level talent and willingness to make changes this late in his tennis journey certainly signal that it's time to put down the tennis obituaries.
Over the past couple of years, as Djokovic and Rafael Nadal dominated the ATP, Federer struggled with his health and confidence in a week-in, week-out basis more than he ever had in his career.
As his belief in his game and body declined, so did the aggression, precision and poise that made him so unbeatable for so long. Line-clipping winners turned into shanks, delicate footwork became clumsy and close matches stopped turning in his favor.
But since his union with Stefan Edberg, racket change and run of good health, Federer has looked more like he did in the days of yore. He's also been able to fight through rough patches with more determination than ever. Both of his big wins in Dubai came from one set down, the first time he's accomplished that in back-to-back matches against top players since 2009.
Federer registers consecutive wins over the Top 10 after dropping the first set for the first time since 2009 WTF (d. Verdasco, Murray).— Josh Meiseles (@jmeistennis) March 1, 2014
Despite his struggles since winning Wimbledon in 2012, Federer—now ranked No. 8 in the world—has gotten himself back into form. It hasn't been easy, but the man with nothing left to prove did it anyway.
Federer told the press after his victory over Djokovic that he hoped that his turn in Dubai would be a launching pad for the rest of his season.
It's all happening. Beating Novak on the hard courts here in Dubai, it's tough, you know. Clearly not best of five, clearly not the finals of some whatever tournament, but this is a big ‑‑this is a big step in the right direction for me. Gives me a lot of confidence, I hope.
Of course, a guy of Federer's stature isn't going to be satisfied solely by a Dubai trophy. If he is unable to carry this momentum through to the Masters events in Indian Wells and Miami this month, it will be a disappointment. If he repeats last year's subpar performances at the French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open, this week will merely be a forgotten footnote.
Will Federer win Indian Wells or Miami?
There's never been a doubt that there were moments of greatness left in Federer, it's just that recently the greatness hadn't been nearly as reliable as it once was.
But in Dubai, Federer was able to put it all together for the first time in a couple of years. With the big titles up for grabs in March, he's once again looking like the world-beater that he has been in the past.
That's no guarantee that Federer will be able to win another major championship or even add to his Masters tally. However, it does put him back into the conversation.
Federer is one of the best tennis players of all time, and if his week in Dubai is any indication, he's not done with his assault on the history books yet.