It has not quite been a great year for Roger Federer. How can a player of Federer's historic heft call any tennis year great when he fails to win a Grand Slam title?
But it has been - without a doubt - a surprising, resurgent, deeply impressive year, and he now has a chance during the next five weeks to make it something genuinely special.
At the advanced tennis age of 33, Federer has a fighting chance of catching Novak Djokovic to become the oldest year-end No. 1 in history and can also help win the first Davis Cup for Switzerland in a grand French venue and raucous atmosphere worthy of the occasion.
Along the way, he is quite capable of extending his all-time men's record by winning a seventh year-end championship at the World Tour Finals in London.
"Lots of candy to put in the trick or treat basket near the end of the year," said Tony Godsick, Federer's longtime agent. "He will try to do as much as he can, but I don't think anyone questions his scheduling. He's a master of that, so we'll see. It'll be a lot."
But there could clearly be temptation to overdo it from here. Federer is scheduled to play in his hometown tournament in Basel, Switzerland, this week and then at the indoor Masters 1000 event in Paris the following week. After that, he would get a one-week break before London, followed immediately by the Davis Cup final in Lille, where the French will put down an indoor clay court in a converted soccer stadium that is already sold out for all three days of the event.
If Federer has success in each individual tournament, it may sound like too much tennis, particularly if he wants to be at his sharpest for the Davis Cup final.
"I think if somebody can do it all, then Roger is the one who can do it," said his co-coach Severin Luthi in a telephone interview. "But it's still possible that if he, say, wins Basel or really goes deep and wouldn't feel 100 percent then he would maybe skip Paris. It's a big advantage that this year there's a week off between Paris and London."
"Strange things could happen," said Brad Gilbert, the coach and ESPN analyst.
Indeed they could, but then it has been a men's season full of surprises for a change: beginning with Stan Wawrinka's winning the Australian Open and continuing last month with Marin Cilic's winning the U.S. Open after beating Kei Nishikori in a final lacking any member of the customary cast (Djokovic, Nadal, Federer and Andy Murray).
Cilic demolished Federer 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 in the semifinals, wrecking Federer's chances this year of adding to his record total of 17 Grand Slam singles titles. His last came at Wimbledon in 2012.
Deflated? Certainly, and he might still be if Mayer had converted on one of those five match points in Shanghai. But the Argentine's best chance - a short backhand - struck the tape, and Federer clicked into a higher gear.
This season clearly represents progress, best exemplified by Federer's record against top-10 opponents. He was 4-10 against them in 2013, but is 13-4 this year.
His chronic back problems have not resurfaced. A new, larger-headed racket has clearly helped him regain some power and precision relative to the field. Adding boyhood idol Stefan Edberg to the coaching team on a part-time basis has helped Federer's volleying, attacking game and, so it seems, his sense of well-being.
"One of the most important things is that he's healthy, that he's got his back under control," Luthi said. "That was the big, big problem last year. Because suddenly if you are not 100 percent then you are starting to maybe do different movements, and then you are always thinking of how to move and how to play."
Federer also is more often driving his one-handed backhand instead of slicing it this year.
"He's taking a lot more cuts down the line with it, too, and doing it a lot earlier in matches," Gilbert said. "He's starting to chip and charge a bit, coming in a lot more, trying to shorten the point. But I think more than anything, he just really enjoys his tennis, loves competing. People say maybe he can't win another big one. Father Time gets everyone, but I'm telling you, he's an incredibly young 33."
Gilbert once coached Andre Agassi, who went on to become the oldest No. 1 in history at 33 years and four months. Federer just might surpass him if he can go do well in Basel, where Djokovic is not entered, and then make up more points on the Serb in Paris or London. But returning to No. 1, where Federer already has spent a record 302 weeks, is surely not the main priority.
"It's not in Roger's hands maybe to be No. 1," Luthi said. "But for sure, if there's a chance, he's going to anyway do his best. It would be a bonus, but it's not the main goal."
That must be the Davis Cup, which Switzerland has never won. As if to underscore it, he spent three days last week training on red clay indoors (the same surface to be used for the final in Lille) before returning to hard courts. Luthi said Federer also might do another short clay-court camp between Paris and London.
"If not for this he would not have played on clay for six months," said Luthi, the Swiss Davis Cup captain. "I think this really helps him remember how to play on it."
He has played plenty in 2014 and, despite last year's slide, he clearly remembers how to be a major factor on any court, even with gazillions in the bank and four children now in tow.
It has not quite been a great year, but it already makes for quite a scrapbook. Time to fill the last few empty pages.
© 2014 New York Times News Service