London (AFP): Twelve months after shutting down his season in the wake of a devastating semi-final defeat, Roger Federer returns to Wimbledon as favourite to capture a record-breaking eighth title and become the tournament’s oldest champion.
The evergreen Swiss, who turns 36 in August, has stunned the critics who wrote him off as yesterday’s man when he went down to Milos Raonic in five gruelling sets on Centre Court in 2016.
The loss forced him off tour for the remainder of the year to rest a knee injury, leaving his Grand Slam title count on 17 where it had been since 2012.
Fast forward a year and Federer is poised to break the tie for seven Wimbledon titles he shares with Pete Sampras and take his career tally at the majors to 19.
With eternal rivals Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic in slumps of varying degrees, and Rafael Nadal fretting over whether or not his knees will bear the stress of grass courts, it is Federer once again in the box seat.
Federer, who captured a fifth Australian Open in January, will go into Wimbledon buoyed by a ninth title on the grass of Halle and refreshed by skipping the claycourt season.
However, he will not write off his three major rivals with whom he has shared all the Wimbledon titles since his maiden triumph in 2003.
“If Andy is anything close to 100% physically, I consider him one of the big favourites to win. It’s that simple. It’s the same for Novak and the same for Rafa,” said Federer who will start his Wimbledon campaign against Alexander Dolgopolov of Ukraine.
“I think it’s very even when we put it all out on the line. Everybody has their own little story right now.”
For tennis storylines of 2017, Federer shares top billing with Nadal after the Spaniard defied the doubters to win a 10th French Open.
That took him to 15 Grand Slam titles, one ahead of Sampras and just three behind Federer.
But for Nadal, Wimbledon has always been bittersweet.
He was champion in 2008 — where he beat Federer in a final widely regarded as the greatest ever played — and 2010 as well as finishing runner-up in 2006, 2007 and 2011.
Injury forced him to skip Wimbledon in 2009 and 2016 while the years 2012-2015 saw him lose to Lukas Rosol (world ranked 100), Steve Darcis (135), Nick Kyrgios (144) and Dustin Brown (102).
A fourth round run in 2014 represents his best recent effort.
Nadal admits that if he suffers a new problem with his knees on the Wimbledon grass, where the lower bounce of the ball piles more pressure on the legs and joints, then his visit to London may again be short-lived.
“If I have pain in the knees, then I know from experience that it’s almost impossible,” said the 31-year-old.
Nadal, who could face Federer in the final, opens against John Millman of Australia, added that the first week will be crucial.
“If I am able to go through at the beginning, I think I’m with confidence.”
Defending champion Murray is fresh off a first round exit at Queen’s at the hands of Australian world number 90 Jordan Thompson.
The world number one, who was also Wimbledon champion in 2013, has also been dogged by a hip problem which left him grimacing in pain in training this week.
Murray opens proceedings on Centre Court on Monday against lucky loser Alexander Bublik with coach Ivan Lendl insisting the champion will be fit.
“Unlike before Paris, he is hitting the ball really well.
Practice has gone well,” said Lendl.
Djokovic, the three-time Wimbledon champion, warmed up by claiming a morale-boosting title triumph at Eastbourne on Saturday, his first trophy since Doha in January.
The Serb was on top of the world just over 12 months ago when he arrived at Wimbledon with all four Grand Slams in his possession.
However, a third round loss to Sam Querrey set him on a slide which has been more or less constant ever since.
The jury is still out on his decision to hire Andre Agassi as coach while his quarter-final loss at Roland Garros to Dominic Thiem was his first in straight sets at the majors in four years.
“All the top players go through this. I have to get through it and learn the lessons and come back stronger,” said the 30-year-old Serb who will also work with former Wimbledon semi-finalist Mario Ancic who famously defeated Federer at the All England Club back in 2002.
Djokovic faces fiery Slovakian Martin Klizan in the first round with a potential third round blockbuster against Juan Martin del Potro.