Federer looking like his old self
INDIAN WELLS, CALIFORNIA
ROGER Federer leaves the BNP Paribas Open having reclaimed his champion's aura, even after finishing as the runner-up.
After winning the first set of Sunday's final, the seventh seed dropped the next two, ultimately losing 6-3, 3-6, 6-7 (3-7), to No. 2 Novak Djokovic, who claimed his third title at this Masters 1000 event in the desert of the Coachella Valley.
More significantly, there was little to distinguish them statistically. Each man struck the same number of winners as unforced errors - 34 in each category for Federer, 28 for Djokovic. Djokovic won just one more point, 99 to Federer's 98.
Though the tournament began with several upsets - Djokovic was the only one of the top six seeds to reach the quarter-finals - it ended in a familiar battle between two of the most dominant players of this era. The "Big Four" - Djokovic, Federer, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray - have won 28 of the last 29 Masters 1000 events.
Federer's continued presence in that ruling elite has been shaky over the past 10 months. His streak of 36 consecutive appearances in the quarter-finals of Grand Slams ended in June with a second-round loss at Wimbledon to No. 116 Sergiy Stakhovsky. His listless fourth-round exit at the US Open to 22nd-ranked Tommy Robredo was perhaps more unsettling.
During that time, Federer, 32, had back problems. He doubted his racket, switching to a larger model, only to switch back. He had a stretch of nine months without defeating a top-10 player. His pre-tournament ranking of No. 8 was his lowest since 2002.
But this year, Federer has looked like his old self. With a healthier back, a larger racket and a new adviser, Stefan Edberg, he has gone 19-3, and he beat Djokovic and sixth-ranked Tomas Berdych to win in Dubai last month. By reaching Sunday's final, he will re-enter the top five at No. 5.
After the match, Federer said critics might have rushed to bury his career without seeing his slump in perspective.
"You have to look at the overall case," he said. "What's been happening, what are the reasons for maybe not playing so well, or for playing well? You don't just forget how to play tennis, you know. Age is just a number. It's nothing more, really. That's how I see it, anyway."
For Federer, whose back problems began at this tournament a year ago, the second-place finish had a silver lining.
"If you see the angle that last year was difficult - especially this time around last year in Indian Wells - I'm able to turn it all around now, and I'm really playing nice tennis," he said.