NEW YORK -- Two months ago, Wimbledon seemed to be Roger Federer's last best chance for his record 18th Grand Slam singles title.
Well, the old man got to the final, but couldn't quite close the deal, losing to Novak Djokovic in a spirited five-set match. One of the prevailing thoughts these days regarding the 33-year-old's major opportunities is that the US Open constituted his stiffest challenge, in terms of degree of difficulty. The windy conditions, the back-loaded schedule -- and Djokovic's success at this particular venue with four straight appearances in the final -- are all good reasons why it shouldn't happen here.
And yet ... it says here that Federer could do it in New York. The five-time US Open titlist comes in with the best form among his ATP World Tour peers and he looks and sounds confident.
"I think last year I was trying to convince myself I did have an opportunity," Federer said before the tournament, "because I feel like once you have had success and once you know how to win majors, or US Opens for that matter, yeah, can you always do it again. [But] the confidence was going away quickly, too, just because I was just not moving so well. I was scared to have another setback, and so it was just not as clear-cut and simple as it is this year.
"Then you come into this US Open just knowing -- well, you remember how it feels to win tournaments. You almost forget how to lose to a point and confidence rises. I'm looking forward to this tournament, because I really feel like I can play a great tournament. I hope I can show that on the court this year."
So far, so good.
Federer has breezed in his first two matches here. Friday evening he dispatched hard-serving Sam Groth by the count of 6-4, 6-4, 6-4.
Our Baseline Buzzers, ESPN.com tennis editor Matt Wilansky and senior writer Greg Garber, discuss the possibilities that await the Swiss champion,
Greg Garber: No one was more overjoyed when Rafael Nadal pulled out of the US Open with a damaged right wrist. Federer is playing well, but subtracting Rafa from the draw helps Federer as much as anyone. They've met 11 times in Grand Slam play and Rafa has a significant 9-2 edge. Additionally, Federer got Rafa's No. 2 seed, which protects him from Djokovic potentially until the final. The biggest obstacle? Grigor Dimitrov, who looms as a quarterfinal opponent.
Matt Wilansky: The bottom line is that Federer hasn't experienced this kind of good fortune heading into to a major in years. The question: Is his level of play good enough to capitalize on this opportunity and add to his major total? Federer made quick work of Groth, who holds the ATP record with a163 mph serve. Although it wasn't a perfect match from Fed, he did have 15 more winners than unforced errors. Nonetheless, through three matches, there's nothing to suggest Federer won't be around deep into the second week.
Greg Garber: What was interesting to me is the way Federer diffused the power of Groth's serve so easily. Our crack research staff sent along a fascinating note that explains that this isn't a new wrinkle in his game. Did you know, Mr. tennis editor, that Federer is 80-15 against the guys with the 10 fastest serves of all time? The two biggest victims are Andy Roddick (21-3) and Ivan Ljubicic (13-3). Fascinating stuff, which underlines that power isn't everything. Seriously, your 4-year-old daughter has bigger biceps than Fed.
Matt Wilansky: And a better record against Rafa, but that's neither here nor there. Still, while Federer doesn't have the physical prowess as some of his cohorts, you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone with his level of muscle. Federer clocked nine more aces against Groh, and won 41 of 49 first-serve points. As Fivethirtyeight.com's Carl Bialik wrote the other day, Federer has a good shot at passing Pete Sampras' all-time record in aces by year's end. If Federer is going to run the table here in New York, he's going to need his serving wits about him.
Greg Garber: Speaking of which, you have to give the burly Groth a little credit. The 26-year-old Aussie had never, ever played a top-10 player before -- and here he was on Arthur Ashe against the greatest player ever. Or, was he more intimidated that Will Ferrell was in the crowd?
Matt Wilansky: Was it me or do Groth and Ferrell share a similar brawny, mountain-man look? Unlike Fed, who's appearance is as clean as his game, which is a far cry from a year ago. Tennis is a game fraught with ebbs and flows, but for Federer, he was stuck in a rut most of 2013 with only two titles and one appearance past the quarterfinals in a major. Apparently, longevity is on his side, which is really an aberration when you consider only 10 percent of major winners have been 29 or older.
Greg Garber: So, here's what's at stake for Federer: everlasting immortality. OK, he's probably got that already in the can, but ... quite seriously, this would be a huge win for Federer. Not only would it be his first victory here since he won five straight from 2004-08, but it would bring him the elusive 18th major. Just like Serena Williams, he's hungry to hit that number. And, considering the fragile state of Rafa's health, would that be enough to close out the Spaniard, who is tied with Pete Sampras at 14?
Matt Wilansky: That is the $64,000 question for which I have no answer. I'm wondering if Rafa is going to start minimizing his run-of-the-mill events in an effort to win more majors. At this point in his career, his health is more tenuous than ever, and while you have to assume Nadal has one or two more French Open titles left in him, we can't make any such assumptions at any other Slams. The greatest-of-all-time debate is more heated than ever when you consider how rapidly Rafa has moved up the Slam ladder and their lopsided 23-10 head-to-head record. But if Federer were to win here, I think that might ease the consternation, at least temporarily.