Roger Federer is still one of the best tennis players in the world. He's won just a single Grand Slam title over his last 18 appearances on the sport's biggest stages, however. It adds a sense of urgency to the 2014 U.S. Open, where the draw fell decisively in his favor.
The dominance of Federer became so expected during his peak seasons that it probably won't be fully appreciated until he retires. He won three of the four major tournaments three times in a four-year span starting in 2004.
It was a remarkable feat when Novak Djokovic, Federer's main competition in New York, did it once in 2011. The Swiss maestro made it look routine when he was at his best.
Alas, his more recent results at the Grand Slam events show exactly how difficult it is to win the most coveted titles in the sport. Every player in the world gears up for those four chances to get their name etched in history.
As Federer's ability has declined, albeit from an all-time great level to a "merely" elite level, he's been unable to navigate the major journeys quite as well.
Jason Gay of The Wall Street Journal talked with the tennis legend about his drop in overall performance while dealing with some issues last year. He readily admitted it was tough to deal with at first.
"I knew it was physical," Federer said. "I knew I wasn't going to get to certain balls, or even if I did, I knew I was going to lose the point…" The memory gave him pause. "It's not a great feeling."
Yet, if the door was closing on his opportunity to win another Grand Slam title, it's swung wide open again at the U.S. Open. Now the only question is whether he can capitalize on his good fortune.
Rafael Nadal remains sidelined by a wrist injury, and Andy Murray still hasn't rediscovered top form after going through his own injury woes at the end of last season. Those two factors weaken the draw and serve as a gigantic boost to Federer's chances.
The luck of the draw also fell in his favor.
Djokovic will probably have to overcome the likes of John Isner, then Andy Murray or Jo-Wilfried Tsonga just to reach the semifinals. Stanislas Wawrinka or Milos Raonic are likely to be waiting, assuming he passes those earlier tests.
Federer faces a path with much less resistance. Grigor Dimitrov and David Ferrer are the most dangerous players on that half of the draw, but the 17-time major champion would be a sizable favorite against either player.
In other words, things couldn't have set up more perfectly for him to end a five-year drought at the U.S. Open after previously winning five straight titles.
He opened with a straightforward win over Marinko Matosevic. The scoreline was relatively close (6-3, 6-4, 7-6) but the No. 2 seed never appeared in any danger. If he would have needed to find another gear, he probably could have to close it out.
As Tennis Reporters' Matt Cronin points out, Federer should be on cruise control until the second week:
That's when everybody will find out whether he can still close out a Grand Slam with the same vigor he did when he was on top of the tennis world. It will also be interesting to see if the added pressure of winning the title given how things fell for him has any impact.
Eventually, Nadal is going to return and Murray will start playing like himself again, adding two roadblocks on Federer's path to more major titles. So there's definitely added incentive to put another one to his resume before that happens.
A better opportunity may never come back around.