Before Roger Federer's return in January, most observers focused on the hard slog he faced rebuilding his ranking from No. 17. His spectacular win at the Australian Open was unexpected but hardly mind-blowing. He is, after all, Roger Federer.
What nobody really expected, though, is how liberating all that recuperation and rehabilitation time has been, finally freeing Federer from all woes concerning Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, et al. Federer had plenty of time to brood and evaluate while he was away for the second half of 2016. He was able to decide why and how he wanted to play when he returned.
The stunning win over his career-long nemesis Rafael Nadal in the Australian Open final confirmed that his desire to play exuberant, attacking, and -- yes -- flashy tennis was not only justifiable, it was lethal to his rivals. It has made all the difference in the world. And it made all the difference in another dominant run to the Indian Wells final, where he beat Swiss countryman Stan Wawrinka 6-4, 7-5 in Sunday's final.
Granted, the 18-time major champion benefited from some lucky breaks in the draw, but the ongoing Federer show continues to captivate audiences worldwide. The reality is that during the period when Djokovic dominated, Federer had ceased to amaze. Yet against all odds, Federer amazes again.
Federer is loving being Roger Federer again, and that's a formidable advantage. If you told him he could start at Wimbledon tomorrow, he would probably run out on Centre Court without changing out of his Indian Wells kit. He will be playing in Miami, but after that, who knows?
Federer wants to stay healthy and keep "the fire and motivation" that has fueled him recently.
"What I don't want to do is overplay and just get tired of traveling and tired of just playing tournaments and just entering and, I don't know, just doing people a favor just to be there with no aspirations," Federer said. "That's not why I'm playing."
There it is. In a very basic way, he's a man without a plan, which is unheard of at the elite level of tennis. Federer is listening to his body and to his heart. After a life of strict discipline and embracing and meeting obligations, he's operating by instinct. It's worked remarkably well on the court, where his slashing, lashing offensive tennis has earned him the two biggest prizes of 2017.
Federer is operating on an utterly different plane from everyone else. It has translated into a series of spectacular results. When he takes the court next week in Miami, he will do so without either Murray or Djokovic, both injured, in the draw. Thus, it will be an even greater chance to build on his already terrific season.
"I'd love to be world No. 1 again," Federer told reporters. "But anything else for me is not interesting. So that's why the rankings is not a priority right now. It's totally about being healthy, enjoying the tournaments I'm playing and trying to win those."
Federer's résumé contains as many items as the Manhattan telephone directory, but some of his significant achievements can't be quantified as crisply. One of the major ones is the way he's lifted the profile of Swiss tennis.
His best work in that regard was on display Sunday against Wawrinka. All those fans bearing Swiss flags on the grounds could have been mistaken for emergency responders from the Red Cross. Thankfully, they were just testaments to the aphorism, "a rising tide lifts all boats."
Wawrinka has often said that growing up in the shadow of the 18-time Grand Slam champion has been nourishing rather than intimidating. "It was great for me," Wawrinka told reporters after he booked his ticket to the Indian Wells final, pointing to the history the men share. "Best player ever, No. 1 player. I shared some amazing moments at Davis Cup, Olympics, a lot of practice experience. So it helped me a lot to make me the player I am now."
If greatness in tennis always implies a measure of greed for glory, call Wawrinka's relationship to Federer "guilt by association."
I'm [Stan's] No. 1 fan when it comes to his success and how he's been able to do it," Federer told the press before the final. "I know a lot what's going on in Stan's life, and he knows a lot what's going on in mine. We always support one another."
The bonhomie on display in the trophy presentation ceremony after Federer's bewitching and well-earned win was touching. It was also a part of another achievement that won't really show up on the stat sheets or the history books. That's the sheer wonder and joy Federer has brought to so many spectators, live and on television, at the age of 35.