NEW YORK (AP) — The question made Roger Federer smile.
Nothing particularly amusing about asking how he adjusts from playing mostly night matches in the U.S. Open's early rounds to the daytime starts at the end. But the assumption behind the query was cause for delight.
"It's perfect that we're talking semis and finals already," Federer said. "It wasn't like that last year."
No, last year at this time the questions were about whether a remarkable career was sputtering to a halt. He had lost in the second round at Wimbledon and arrived at the U.S. Open wary of a balky back and seeded seventh.
"Last year I was trying to convince myself I did have an opportunity," he conceded Saturday.
"I just kind of felt like it was always going to be for me hard beating top-5, top-10 players," Federer added. "I felt like I had little margin against guys ranked just outside of the top 10 to No. 30 in the world."
He was right. The 17-time major champion lost in the fourth round to 22nd-ranked Tommy Robredo.
"The confidence was going away quickly, just because I was just not moving so well," Federer said. "I was scared to have another setback.
"And so it was just not as clear-cut and simple as it is this year."
Because this year, a deep run in New York again seems as routine as the celebrities who dot the stands at Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Federer took Novak Djokovic to a tense fifth set in the Wimbledon final, reached the title match at the hard-court tuneup in Toronto, then won in Cincinnati. He's seeded a far more familiar No. 2 at Flushing Meadows with second-ranked Rafael Nadal sidelined by a wrist injury.
And considering Federer's lopsided losing record against the Spaniard, the draw is looking mighty friendly.
"What stands out is the opportunity to try to take advantage of the fact that he's not here," Federer said. "It's one less really difficult player to beat, maybe."
The Swiss great wouldn't meet Djokovic until the final. David Ferrer — 0-16 against Federer — is a potential semifinal opponent.
There might never be a better chance to seize an 18th Grand Slam title.
The U.S. Open begins Monday with Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka, Venus Williams and Sloane Stephens among the big names playing in the day session. Maria Sharapova and Djokovic take the court on Ashe for the night session.
The unknown with Djokovic is whether he can flip the switch to rediscover his focus after the Wimbledon title followed shortly by his wedding.
"It was a very emotional period," Djokovic said Saturday. "I just felt a little bit flat on the court. I wasn't managing to find that intensity and the perfect mindset. But, you know, it's all normal. It's something that I'm experiencing for the first time, right?"
Djokovic added he was seeking advice from other players who have balanced personal milestones with professional achievements, taking a playful jab at his coach, the twice-married Boris Becker, who "has been through similar experiences in his life more than one time."
It's been more than two years since Federer padded his record by winning his 17th Grand Slam title. By the end of 2013, it looked as though he might stay stuck on that number forever.
Federer brought on an idol, Stefan Edberg, as coach this year. Under the six-time major champ, he's moving forward far more, ending points quickly and saving the wear and tear on his 33-year-old body. Federer came to the net 67 times in the Wimbledon final.
"This isn't something new or that people weren't suggesting he do for years," ESPN analyst John McEnroe said on a conference call this week. "Seems like Edberg maybe more than other coaches has gotten into his head at this stage of his career that that is going to help him."
Edberg's guidance has helped Federer's performances all season.
"Not just Toronto and Cincinnati, but really from the first week on I have always played really nice tennis," Federer said. "You remember how it feels to win tournaments. You remember and you get used to that. You almost forget how to lose and confidence rises. You're back to winning ways again and everything seems so simple."
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