Back at No. 2, Federer Eyes Sampras' Mark

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Roger Federer has nothing to prove. He must accomplish nothing, short of finally beating Rafael Nadal again in a Grand Slam, to secure his legendary status. He is one of a handful of players to earn the right to be mentioned in the greatest-of-all-time conversation. Yet this doesn't make the 16-time Slam winner any less hungry or anxious to burnish his embarrassment-of-riches resume.

But Federer would love to break one record - Pete Sampras' feat of holding the No. 1 ranking for 286 weeks. Federer is agonizingly close, having stood atop the tennis world for 285 weeks.

After Nadal's three Slam victories in 2010 and Novak Djokovic doing the same last year, it appeared that Federer, who'll turn 31 in August, had no shot of being the top-ranked player again.

But all of a sudden Federer has supplanted Nadal at No. 2 and is closing fast on the top-rated Djokovic. Federer's 3-6, 7-5, 7-5 victory over Tomas Berdych in the final of the controversial Madrid Masters on Sunday makes it likely that Federer will be seeded second at the French Open in two weeks. The only way Federer wouldn't be seeded second would be if he were to lose early in this week's Italian Open.

What makes Federer's recent string of success so special and emblematic of his tenacity is that it all started after perhaps the most crushing loss of his career. That of course was the 2011 U.S. Open semifinals, when for the second straight year he had two match points against eventual champion Djokovic. But as all fans can remember with clarity, Djokovic ripped two incredible returns that shocked Federer and left him reeling, forlorn and beaten.

But since that wrenching defeat, Federer has compiled a record of 45-3. He has been by far the most consistent player on tour.

Yet will this success in Masters and other events translate to a Grand Slam title? Indeed, Federer needs a Slam victory to regain the No. 1 ranking. Unless Nadal suffers a shocking upset on the red clay of Paris, he'll remain the favorite - with Djokovic just behind - to win his seventh French title. So at this point Federer is likely to set his sights on Wimbledon as his best chance for one more Slam and the top ranking.

What does Federer have to do to withstand the grueling fortnight of three-of-five-set matches that are the Slams? He hasn't won one since the 2010 Australian Open, by far the longest stretch of his brilliant career. Unquestionably, Federer needs to stay aggressive on his serve. For years his fans have been clamoring for Federer to move into the forecourt with greater frequency, to utilize his superb volleying and reactive abilities.

But Federer has made it clear with his actions, if not his words, that with the extraordinary returning power of Djokovic and Nadal's passing shot acumen, he will approach the net only selectively on an outdoor court.

So this makes his serving that much more important. Unlike Nadal and Djokovic, who use the serve to set up what is usually a long rally, Federer needs to take additional chances. If this means a slight reduction in his first-serve percentage, that is a small price to pay. It is paramount that he end points quickly, and the only way to accomplish that is by serving as powerfully as he's capable.

I often look back to Federer's thrilling victory over Andy Roddick in the 2009 Wimbledon final. That was the last big match Federer played in which he served brilliantly. He needs to recapture that serving dominance if he is to take down Djokovic, Nadal or both in a Grand Slam.

But for now, Federer can head into the French Open with little pressure on himself, no matter how he fares in Rome. All the pressure in Paris will be on Nadal.

Though he wouldn't dare say it, Federer is likely dreaming already of London grass and the number 286.

Parting shots from Madrid: As they exited the Madrid tournament, Nadal and Djokovic justifiably seethed at the affront to tradition and respect they perceived from Ion Tiriac's Madrid blue clay.

"They made a decision without the players agreeing on it, so this is a rule that has to be changed immediately," Djokovic told reporters after he lost to fellow Serb Janko Tipsarevic in Friday's quarterfinals. "This is just a clear example of how our system does not work in favor of players."

Said Nadal's coach and uncle Toni: "That the ATP gave permission to this [Madrid] is an outrage. ... The blame is also with the ATP that allowed Tiriac to do that. What power this man must have that allows him to change customs and habits of the players. ... Tiriac apologized to Rafa after the match. But the big culprit is the ATP, which should not have give permission, and I hope that they do not give it next year."

Award-winning columnist Tim Joyce provides occasional commentary for RealClearSports. Email:

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