LONDON: 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.