By Ravi Ubha
LONDON -- "This is one of his seven. I'm so far away. I'm happy to be on the board. It's nice to be part of history at Wimbledon and in Grand Slams in general."
That was Roger Federer in July 2003, when asked if he could match Pete Sampras' record men's haul of seven Wimbledon titles. He'd just tamed Mark Philippoussis and his booming serve, the type that especially thrives on the grass, to collect a first Grand Slam title.
Almost as fast as a Philippoussis ace, things changed for Federer. Dissecting those words from the Swiss, it wasn't long before he was no longer "just happy to be on the board." His hunger -- so often forgotten given his effortless game and lack of much emotion on court apart from low-key cries of "come on" here and there -- propelled Federer further.
Federer's metamorphosis began: He turned into a multiple Grand Slam winner, entered the greatest-of-all-time conversation and now leads the way when discussing tennis' best ever. He is the face of Wimbledon, a traditionalist at the major where tradition counts the most, and is still fending off Rafael Nadal in heading the list of men's Grand Slam titles with 17.
Alas, aging -- like death, taxes and slips on the Wimbledon grass in the first week -- is inevitable and an obstacle Federer won't overcome.
But should the almost 33-year-old, attempting to make more history at Wimbledon by becoming the lone eight-time men's winner and its oldest men's champ in the Open Era, be ruled out of this year's tournament when it starts Monday?
A host of factors, nothing to do with sentiment here, make for a resounding no.
Even in 2003 Federer's back was troublesome, to the point where speculation was rife that he wouldn't complete the fortnight. He admitted to being in a "lot of pain" against Feliciano Lopez in the fourth round and -- in a sight rarely witnessed since he became a Grand Slam winner -- took a medical timeout.
The back, though, which contributed to last year's stunning upset loss to pal Sergiy Stakhovsky in the second round and a wretched sequence in Hamburg and Gstaad -- Federer played in the modest clay-court events to get Wimbledon out of his system -- is much better.
"It's a pleasure being healthy and really fit and eager to give it a go again," Federer, the fourth seed, told reporters at the All England Club on Saturday in a pre-tournament briefing. "I feel I have a very good chance again this year.
"I hope to utilize my fitness, the amount of matches I've played this year. So I'm really coming in with a much better feeling than maybe in the last year.
"This year I feel all the options are there. Return, serve, serve and volley, come in, my backhand, everything is working to my liking."
Federer's draw, too, must be to his liking.
Among the seeds Federer could face early are Marcel Granollers and one of Tommy Robredo or Jerzy Janowicz. It was Robredo who handed Federer arguably his worst loss of 2013 -- surpassing the reverse to Stakhovksy -- since he entered their fourth-round clash at Flushing Meadows 0-10 in their head-to-heads.
But Robredo is hardly a grass-court threat and hasn't equaled his performances of last season. Pencilling in Janowicz, last year's semifinalist, for a fourth-round date would be premature, what with the emotional Pole only recently ending a nine-match skid.
If the seedings hold, Federer's quarterfinal foe will be his fellow Swiss, Stan Wawrinka. Wawrinka has always struggled, mentally, in his encounters with his older compatriot. His only two victories in 15 tries came on clay; grass is his least comfortable environment; and Wawrinka is yet to come to terms with being a Grand Slam winner. In short, the "Stanimal" is currently AWOL.
That small matter of Nadal in the semifinals? Okay, there's no getting around this one for Federer, the surface notwithstanding. At this juncture of their careers and in the best-of-five set format, Nadal would have to be the pick to progress.
Federer must hope, then, that Nadal exits prior to the semifinals -- a scenario that materialized the past two years.
Much has been made of Nadal's own draw, and while he boasts a 69-7 record against left-handers (he begins against dangerous lefty Martin Klizan); would relish a second-round tussle with Lukas Rosol (he couldn't possibly oust Nadal at Wimbledon twice, could he?); and sports a 4-0 record against potential third-round opponent Ivo Karlovic (fifth in aces all time), it certainly isn't the kindest section for the 14-time major winner.
If Federer does advance to the finale, defending champion Andy Murray figures to be the man across the net, like in 2012. Of the Big Four, Murray benefited from the cushiest draw before the semis and top-seed Novak Djokovic, who is in his half, ominously skipped a grass-court exhibition last week to guard against reinjuring his wrist.
Federer would take that one-match showdown with the Scot.
"I think Roger is very well positioned for a great run at Wimbledon," said Justin Gimelstob, an analyst for the Tennis Channel and a grass-court finalist in Newport in 2006. "His game is perfectly suited for grass. His variety, comfort moving forward, movement, improvisational skills … they're all at a premium in grass-court tennis.
"He's healthy, confident and has a very advantageous draw."
Having Stefan Edberg, the two-time Wimbledon winner hired in December, in his corner at SW19 for the first time is a boost for Federer.
Accuracy in Federer's net play lacked in his fourth round loss to Ernests Gulbis at the French Open, but volleying on clay is a different, more difficult, proposition to volleying on grass.
In general, Federer's willingness to move forward this year -- and being selective on his approaches -- helped to land him titles in his second home of Dubai and, last week, Halle.
Nowadays, staying on the baseline and trading ground strokes with Nadal, Murray and Djokovic won't do over five sets.
"This year we've seen Roger serving and volleying more often, looking to finish at the net more and sharper on his volleys," said Gimelstob. "He has one of the best volleyers in the history of the sport in Stefan urging him to increase his forward pressure.
"I'd be surprised if he wasn't a factor in the late stages of these Championships."
Nothing can match, one suspects, the feeling from winning that first major. But if Federer claims No. 18 in two weeks, his level of jubilation -- following his turbulent 2013 and bearing in mind his age -- probably wouldn't be far off.
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London-based Ravi Ubha's work has appeared on ESPN.com and in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.