Roger Federer is entering the 2014 French Open sporting a label he hasn't often held in his illustrious career: under the radar.
The 2009 Roland Garros winner is currently fourth in line to take the title in Paris this year—well overshadowed by Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and even his countryman and former understudy, Stan Wawrinka.
But don't overlook the G.O.A.T. candidate just yet. The 32-year-old father of four has had a great 2014 season and is feeling good coming into this tournament. Plus, he looked liked the Federer of old (as opposed to the old Federer) as he took out Slovakian Lukas Lacko in his first-round match on Sunday, 6-2, 6-2, 6-4.
Playing fast and looking fit, Federer set the tone with a sharp serve. He served 72 percent, hit seven aces, did not face a break point, and permitted just nine points on serve. Fifteen years to the day after a 17-year-old Federer fell to world No. 3 Patrick Rafter in his Roland Garros debut, the Swiss asserted his all-court game, showing some serve-and-volley flashes and winning 16 of 20 trips to net.
A lot of the reason that Federer feels like the forgotten man at the French this year is because he hasn't played much during the clay season. After a nice start to the season that saw Federer win Dubai, make the semis of the Australian Open and the final of Indian Wells, his clay season was chopped up for a very good reason: His wife, Mirka, gave birth to a second set of twins.
Federer's loss to Jeremy Chardy in the first round of the Rome Masters, his first tournament since becoming a father of four, was so overblown that many forgot that he had started the clay season with aplomb.
The Swiss legend took a wild card into the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters in April, where he made it all the way to the final before falling to his good friend Wawrinka. He took out Djokovic in the semifinals, accounting for the Serbian's only loss so far this clay season.
Overall, 2014 has seen a positive, healthy Federer with accuracy on his serve, much-improved footwork and a wonderful pop on his forehand. He's still much more inconsistent than he was in his prime, but his improved fitness and form has given him his confidence back.
On and off the court, he's relaxed and having fun.
Greg Garber of ESPN.com looked at Federer's mindset coming into the tournament. Apparently, even legends can still get nervous:
'Hints of fear, maybe yesterday, maybe this morning,' he said [to reporters after his win over Lacko]. 'At one point, just for like five seconds, 'I really hope I don't have to pack my bags today.'
Federer, who seems truly born again after the recent arrival of twins Lenny and Leo, seemed to welcome his extra time off.
'When I went to training, I knew what I needed to work on,' Federer said a few days ago. 'Clearly was very exciting times. It's an important stretch now for me, and I don't want to come into this tournaments uninspired or tired. That will be the worst thing.
'For me, it's really about being fresh mentally more than anything at this point.'
While Federer is embracing feeling fresh mentally and physically, he still needs a little help at this point in his career if he's going to be a Grand Slam contender. While there is a lot of tennis left to be played, things are shaping up nicely for the Genius at Work. He simply couldn't have gotten a better draw if he hand-picked it himself.
The first seed that Federer could face would be No. 31 Dmitry Tursunov in the third round. Federer leads their head-to-head matchups 4-0.
In fact, Federer has dominant head-to-heads over all of the seeds in his quarter, including No. 18 Ernests Gulbis, No. 15 Mikhail Youzhny and No. 6 Tomas Berdych. But most importantly, Federer is in the opposite side of the draw of his nemesis Nadal. Instead he would face Djokovic in the semifinals. Federer famously ended Djokovic's title hopes at Roland Garros back in the 2011 semifinals and of course defeated the Serb earlier this year.
But perhaps most significantly, none of the top players have been playing their best tennis this year. Djokovic has struggled with a wrist injury and has looked awfully erratic throughout the season, while Nadal's health and confidence have wavered since the Australian Open.
Federer's looking to add to his legacy and win an 18th major title, and so far things are lining up nicely for him in Paris.
So while the primary focus is on the top two, don't forget about Mr. Federer. Stranger things have already happened in 2014, and it's never smart to look past a legend.
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