That’s why the owner of a record 17 Grand Slam titles, and the man who spent more weeks ranked No. 1 than any other, was out there on a U.S. Open practice court late Tuesday afternoon, putting in some training time shortly after finishing off a 6-3, 6-2, 7-5 victory over 62nd-ranked Grega Zemlja in the first round.
At 32, at his lowest ranking, No. 7, in more than a decade, coming off a stunningly early exit at the previous major tournament Federer is OK with making some concessions. He insists his passion for tennis is still there.
“I’m in a good spot right now,” Federer said. “I want to enjoy it as long as it lasts.”
Federer entered Tuesday 32-11, a .744 winning percentage that doesn’t sound too bad, until you consider his career mark at the start of this season was .816, and he’s had years where he went 81-4 (.953). and 92-5 (.948). He’s only won one tournament in 2013, but Federer hasn’t won fewer than three in any season since 2001.
“Clearly, when you win everything, it’s fun. That doesn’t necessarily mean you love the game more. You just like winning, being on the front page, lifting trophies, doing comfortable press conferences. It’s nice. But that doesn’t mean you really, actually love it, love it,” said Federer, whose streak of 36 consecutive Grand Slam quarterfinals ended with a second-round defeat at Wimbledon against an opponent ranked 116th.
As Federer took a step toward a possible meeting with Rafael Nadal, No. 5 Tomas Berdych and No. 10 Milos Raonic also picked up victories. On a day that American men went 5-1, led by No. 13 John Isner and No. 26 Sam Querrey, a handful of seeded men made departures. No. 14 Jerzy Janowicz of Poland, a semifinalist at Wimbledon in July, was the most surprising to go.
On the women’s side, second-seeded Victoria Azarenka breezed, putting together a 6-0, 6-0 victory over 99th-ranked Dinah Pfizenmaier. The match was played in Arthur Ashe Stadium, where Azarenka lost in three sets to Serena Williams in last year’s final at Flushing Meadows.
Four seeded women were defeated: No. 11 Sam Stosur, along with No. 17 Dominika Cibulkova, No. 20 Nadia Petrova and No. 31 Klara Zakopalova.
Stosur was eliminated 5-7, 6-4, 6-4 by 17-year-old American qualifier Victoria Duval, who is ranked 296th and never before had faced a top 20 opponent or won a Grand Slam match.
“I know she didn’t play her best today, and this is the best I’ve played in my career, so I’m really excited,” Duval told the Louis Armstrong Stadium crowd. “I just tried to stay in the moment.”
No. 2 Victoria Azarenka, the 2012 U.S. Open runner-up and a two-time Australian Open winner, was to play in the night session, following top-seeded man, six-time major champion Novak Djokovic.
Federer says he doesn’t fret about being seeded seventh at Flushing Meadows, a year after being seeded No. 1. Not since 2002, when he was 13th, had Federer been so low at the U.S. Open.
That didn’t really affect Tuesday’s opponent in Arthur Ashe Stadium. All that mattered to Zemlja, who owns fewer Grand Slam match wins, eight, than Federer owns Grand Slam titles, was that he was facing what he considered an impossible task.
“If he’s the seventh seed or fourth seed or first seed, for me, that’s totally irrelevant,” Zemlja said. “He achieved so much. He’s the best player of all time. So I don’t think people can actually say something (negative) about the way he’s playing. You’re losing matches, you’re winning matches – that’s just tennis, and I’m sure he’s going to perform better than maybe he has done in the last few tournaments.”
Difficult as things have been for Federer, he certainly remains capable of summoning his best strokes. A bad lower back has bothered him this season, and he’s experimented with a larger racket head, but with his old equipment in hand Tuesday, a healthy-looking Federer collected 35 winners and only 16 unforced errors.
Wearing neon-pink-and-gray shoes with a “5’’ etched inside a silhouette of the U.S. Open trophy on the right heel – the number of titles he’s won in New York from 2004-08 – Federer won 20 of the 21 points he played at the net and 62 of the 80 points he served. To cap the first set, Federer spun a 95 mph ace into a corner. To cap the second, he hit a 118 mph service winner that forced Zemlja into a backhand return so wild that it sailed directly into a guest box in the stands, where Federer’s agent happened to catch the ball on the fly. And to cap the third, Federer pressed forward for a swinging forehand volley winner.
“I decided ... to play aggressive,” Federer summed up. “I was happy the way I played, you know, overall. I mean, it’s a first round, after all.”