Roger Federer's valiant run to the Wimbledon final earlier this month left the tennis world buzzing about his late-career chances at adding to his major tally.
The fact that the 32-year-old nearly upset Novak Djokovic in a thrilling five-set match in the final left some fans convinced that it was only a matter of when, not if, Federer would get No. 18.
But as the green Wimbledon dust clears and the U.S. Open Series gets underway, it's time to look forward to the rest of 2014 with realistic lenses on. When Federer returns to the tennis tour in a little over a week at the Rogers Cup in Toronto, what can we expect from him?
Last year, Federer withdrew from the Rogers Cup—a tournament he's won twice, but not since 2006—with a bad back, lost in the quarterfinals of the Western & Southern Open to Rafael Nadal and went on to lose in the fourth round of the U.S. Open to Tommy Robredo.
That was not a good August for the 17-time major champion. However, the good news for his fans is that this year's June and July have gone much better for Federer than they did in 2013, and that could signal an August turnaround as well.
This season, after winning Halle and making the Wimbledon final in June, Federer took July off to train, enjoy vacation with his family and crack jokes on Twitter:
Last summer was the complete opposite. After a shocking second-round loss at Wimbledon to Sergiy Stakhovsky, Federer decided to switch to a racket with a larger frame and enter two smaller clay-court tournaments in July to test it out.
The results of that decisions were disastrous, at best. He lost to No. 114 Federico Delbonis in the semifinals of Hamburg and to No. 55 Daniel Brands in his first match in Gstaad. He hurt his back so much during that stretch that he had to pull out of the Rogers Cup.
He then went on to have his worst U.S. Open Series since 2002.
But, the legend that he is, Federer has been able to turn around his fortunes.
He went back to the bigger racket during the brief offseason, and though it hasn't been an effortless transition, the increased power and the bigger sweet spot provided by the larger head has been beneficial.
This season, Federer has defeated seven Top 10 opponents, won two titles, made four other finals and improved his ranking from No. 8 to No. 3. In contrast, in the first seven months of 2013, Federer defeated only one Top 10 opponent and made one final. He's been consistently good this year, and occasionally great.
Federer does need some luck in the draw in a way that he didn’t during the years of his dominance, when he won the US Open for five straight years between 2004 and 2008. It would help—to state the obvious—if he could avoid facing Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic until the final, as he did at Wimbledon; something that’s not impossible, should an early exit overtake either one of them. You would back Federer on paper against anybody else in the field—including Andy Murray, the 2012 US Open champion, based on Murray’s 2014 form so far.
Of course, "favored" doesn't mean the same thing for Federer as it did during his prime. It used to a given that Federer would win the matches that he should win. Nowadays, that's not necessarily the case. While he hasn't had as many head-scratching losses as he did in 2013, this year hasn't been upset-free.
Federer has losses this season to No. 60 Lleyton Hewitt, No. 21 Kei Nishikori, No. 47 Jeremy Chardy and No. 17 Ernests Gulbis. In many of those losses, he found himself unable to impose his game and has been at the mercy of his opponent's accuracy. That's a stark contrast from his prime years, when it seemed like win or lose, every match was on Federer's racket.
Even the father of four knows that nothing is guaranteed these days. But as he told reporters after his loss to Djokovic at the All England Club, he is hopeful that there are more peaks ahead than valleys:
There is no guarantee that you're going to be ever [in a major final] again or not. Or maybe there's much more to come. It's really impossible to answer that question.
I'm very happy to see that with feeling normal I can produce a performance like I did the last two weeks. That clearly makes me believe that this was just a steppingstone to many more great things in the future.
If all goes according to plan, Federer will play in three events this summer: the Rogers Cup, the Western & Southern Open and the U.S. Open, which kicks off in one month.
All of those fields will contain the best players in the world, and on hard courts where Djokovic thrives and Nadal has recently dominated, it's hard to see Federer coming away with a title at any of those events. However, a couple of deep runs to the semis or finals seems likely, given his Wimbledon form.
His best chance of adding to his trophy case and getting a big win over Djokovic or Nadal would come in the fall season, which is primarily played on indoor hard courts, a surface that Federer loves.
There's nothing left for Federer to prove, but that doesn't mean that the end of his career doesn't matter. If he could win another late-career Slam or have some more marquee wins over Djokovic or Nadal, it would certainly add to his already monstrous legacy.
The realities of aging and the strength at the top of the ATP right now means that Federer will never go back to the days where he was practically a given to win the biggest tournaments in the world. But even as he nears his 33rd birthday, the guy is hardly a has-been slouch.
It's important to look at the remainder of Federer's season—and career—with a healthy does of realism. But there's certainly room for optimism in the equation as well.