Roger Federer of Switzerland prepares to return the ball to Ernests Gulbis of Latvia during their men's singles match at the French Open tennis tournament at the Roland Garros stadium in Paris June 1, 2014. Credit: Reuters/Gonzalo Fuentes
A year after having his "butt kicked" at Wimbledon, a fitter and healthier Roger Federer was back at the All England Club on Saturday eager to kick butt himself over the next fortnight.
Little-known Ukrainian Sergiy Stakhovsky enjoyed more than 15 minutes of fame after he condemned the seven-time champion to a brutal second-round defeat last June.
That result not only ended Federer's remarkable run of reaching 36 consecutive grand slam quarter-finals or better dating back to 2004, it was also the first time in eight years he had lost to a rival ranked outside the top 100.
Though he did not let on then, the Swiss master now admits the bewitching racket skills that had wowed fans from London to South Africa and Melbourne to New York temporarily lost their magic in June 2013.
"It's a pleasure being healthy and really fit and eager to give it a go again," said Federer, dressed impeccably in a white RF embossed pullover and track pants.
"I feel I have a very good chance again this year," he told reporters. "I hope to utilize my fitness. I'm really coming in with a much better feeling than maybe in the last year, for instance.
"I don't know if my game was good enough to win the entire thing last year.
"I had too many hiccups leading into Wimbledon and probably ... winning Halle (just before Wimbledon) ... I think masked the problems I was playing with, the way I was playing," added Federer.
"There were certain things I wanted to do but I couldn't figure out or couldn't do it," added the Swiss fourth seed who will open his campaign for a record-extending 18th grand slam title against Italian Paolo Lorenzi.
Everything is working
"This year I feel all the options are there. Return, serve, serve and volley, come in, my backhand, everything is working to my liking," he said. "For that reason I feel I'm a bit more relaxed mentally because I know it is there. I clearly want to do better than last year, there's no doubt about it."
Since that surreal day last June, it is not only Federer's racket-wielding abilities that have undergone a transformation.
He now has his childhood idol Stefan Edberg in his corner, having hired the Swedish great as a part-time coach, and has double the amount of children after his wife delivered a second set of twins.
With his 33rd birthday seven weeks away, Federer says he now savors his trips to the slams even more, even if it means coming face-to-face with upstarts like Stakhovsky who are waiting for the chance "to tell my grandkids that I kicked the butt of Roger Federer".
"I see him and we always joke about the match ... and that we can only face each other in the final this year so it's all good for both of us. Well for me at least," laughed the popular Swiss.
"As you get older you appreciate everything even more. You enjoy it more because you know you might not have another 15 Wimbledons left. ... So you're even more ... happy to be part of this great experience every time."