Roger Federer may never again reach the heights he did during his outstanding prime. Yet, the longtime superstar is showing why he's still a threat on tennis' biggest stages during a recent resurgence, which he's trying to continue over the next few weeks in Miami.
A quick glance at Federer's results this season illustrate a return to what used to serve as normal operating procedure for him. He's making semifinals and finals on a regular basis and won a title in Dubai, highlighted by wins over Tomas Berdych and Novak Djokovic.
One of those trips to a semifinal happened in the first major tournament of the season, the Australian Open. The Swiss sensation eliminated Andy Murray in the quarterbacks before falling to Rafael Nadal in the following round.
In the past, that would have actually been a disappointing result for Federer. This year, however, it represented his first journey that deep into a Grand Slam event since the previous year's Australian Open. A clear sign of progress.
He was eliminated in the quarterfinals of the 2013 French Open. After that, he then failed to advance beyond the fourth round at Wimbledon or the U.S. Open. It was the first time that happened twice in a season at majors since 2003.
So just when it appeared Federer might be slipping out of that elite group of players, he rebounds and once again establishes himself in the upper echelon early in 2014.
He believes getting back to full strength is the biggest reason for his return to form. Anita Aguilar of Tennis.com passed along comments from Federer, who said the absence of the mental grind that came along with a lingering back injury is refreshing:
I can wake up in the morning without feeling sore. I can go to bed not feeling like, I hope I feel better tomorrow. I think I'm just playing more freely overall and with more confidence because I can get to more balls without thinking.
It shows on the court, too. He's once again starting to move around the court with the trademark fluidity that made him so hard to beat over the previous decade. Perhaps not on the same exact level as before but certainly much closer than was the case last year.
That's translated into success and a climb back up the rankings. ESPN Tennis noted during his run to the final, where he lost a three-set match to Djokovic, he pushed himself back into the top five for the first time since last August:
Rising through the ranks is key for two reasons.
Most importantly, it proves that he's playing better and starting to regain the moxie that's made him one of the greatest players in history. A major factor in that success has always been his remarkable consistency, and that's also returned.
The other reason the improved ranking is key comes when looking forward to the majors. It should set him up for more favorable draws instead of having to face two or three of the other "Big Four" members in order to win another Grand Slam trophy.
He's already the proud owner of 17 major championships. Only one of those has come over his last 16 appearances, though (Wimbledon in 2012). So the rate of triumph in the marquee tournaments has certainly decreased.
With Federer back playing at a high level, it's too soon to completely close the window on him adding a couple of more majors and potentially pushing for 20 in his career. It's a long shot, but at the very least, the idea seems far more plausible than during the latter stages of last season.
The ongoing event in Miami is loaded with top talent including Nadal, Djokovic and Andy Murray. So it's another measuring-stick opportunity for Federer to see exactly where he stands and how much work is left to do before the French Open in May.
He's definitely trending in the right direction. Whether you rely on the eye test, the record or the stats, all signs point toward a rejuvenated Federer heading into the annual busy stretch of majors.
Don't be surprised if he ends up winning one of the remaining three Grand Slam titles this year.