At this point in his career, Roger Federer recognizes the importance of a little extra work.
That’s why the owner of a record 17 Grand Slam titles, and the man who spent more weeks ranked No. 1 than any other, was out there on a US Open practice court late Tuesday afternoon, putting in some training time shortly after finishing off a 6-3, 6-2, 7-5 victory over 62nd-ranked Grega Zemlja of Slovenia in the first round.
At 32, at his lowest ranking, No. 7, in more than a decade, and coming off a stunningly early exit at the previous major tournament — one of a series of newsworthy losses lately — Federer is OK with making some concessions. He insists his passion for tennis is still there.
”I’m in a good spot right now,” Federer said. ”I want to enjoy it as long as it lasts.”
He made it sound, though, as if it isn’t as easy to enjoy things the way his results have been going.
Federer entered Tuesday 32-11, a .744 winning percentage that doesn’t sound too bad, until you consider his career mark at the start of this season was .816, and he has had years where he went 81-4 (.953). and 92-5 (.948). He has won only one tournament in 2013, which would be great for some guys, but Federer topped 10 titles three times, and hasn’t won fewer than three in any season since 2001.
”Clearly, when you win everything, it’s fun," said Federer, whose streak of 36 consecutive Grand Slam quarterfinals ended with a second-round defeat at Wimbledon against an opponent ranked 116th. "That doesn’t necessarily mean you love the game more. You just like winning, being on the front page, lifting trophies, doing comfortable press conferences. It’s nice. But that doesn’t mean you really, actually love it, love it.
"That maybe shines through maybe more in times when you don’t play that well. For me, I knew it — winning or losing, practice court or match court — that I love it.”
Federer says he doesn’t fret about being seeded seventh at Flushing Meadows, a year after being seeded No. 1. Not since 2002, when he was 13th, had Federer been so low at the US Open.
That didn’t really affect Tuesday’s opponent in Arthur Ashe Stadium. All that mattered to Zemlja, who owns fewer Grand Slam match wins, eight, than Federer owns Grand Slam titles, was that he was facing what he considered an impossible task.
”If he’s the seventh seed or fourth seed or first seed, for me, that’s totally irrelevant,” Zemlja said. ”He achieved so much. He’s the best player of all time. So I don’t think people can actually say something (negative) about the way he’s playing. You’re losing matches, you’re winning matches — that’s just tennis, and I’m sure he’s going to perform better than maybe he has done in the last few tournaments.”
Difficult as things have been for Federer, he certainly remains capable of summoning his best strokes. A bad lower back has bothered him this season, and he has experimented with a larger racket head, but with his old equipment in hand Tuesday, a healthy-looking Federer collected 35 winners and only 16 unforced errors.
Wearing neon-pink-and-gray shoes with a ”5” etched inside a silhouette of the US Open trophy on the right heel — the number of titles he’s won in New York from 2004-08 — Federer won 20 of the 21 points he played at the net and 62 of the 80 points he served. To cap the first set, Federer spun a 95 mph ace into a corner. To cap the second, he hit a 118-mph service winner that forced Zemlja into a backhand return so wild that it sailed directly into a guest box in the stands, where Federer’s agent happened to catch the ball on the fly. And to cap the third, Federer pressed forward for a swinging forehand volley winner.
”I decided . . . to play aggressive,” Federer summed up. ”I was happy the way I played, you know, overall. I mean, it’s a first round, after all.”