By Martyn Herman
LONDON (Reuters) - Roger Federer expects great things from the likes of Novak Djokovic, Stan Wawrinka and Andy Murray when they return from long injury layoffs at the start of next season.
Swiss maestro Federer took the second half of 2016 off to fully recover from a knee and back injuries and returned with a vengeance to win the Australian Open and Wimbledon - taking his grand slam total to 19.
Rafael Nadal also made an astonishing comeback from an injury-plagued 2016 to win the French and U.S. Open titles.
Federer's staggering year ended in subdued fashion on Saturday when the 36-year-old's hopes of a seventh ATP Finals title were ended by David Goffin in the semi-finals, Federer succumbing 2-6 6-3 6-4 at the O2 Arena.
Yet he is already looking forward with relish to when multiple major winners Djokovic, fellow Swiss Wawrinka and Britain's Murray are expected to be back in action.
"You've always got to expect a slow process. Then if it goes fast, that's great," world number two Federer told reporters after losing to Goffin for only his fifth defeat of a year in which he won seven titles.
"You take time off, you come back, you're good again. That's not how it goes. Coming back is always a challenge for the body. It's a challenge for the team because you've got to be extremely patient yet positive. Not so easy, you know, in some instances.
"But I expect from the guys who have been extremely high up in the rankings, who have won slams, like Stan, Andy and Novak, of course I expect greatness from them.
"When they return at some stage, not maybe from the very beginning. But I wouldn't be surprised if it worked out for them as well like it worked out for me and Rafa."
Twelve-times grand slam champion Djokovic (elbow) and three-times major winners Murray (hip) and Wawrinka (knee) have not played competitively since July.
Kei Nishikori and Milos Raonic were also missing from the ATP Finals this year, giving the tournament a new look with half the eight-man field being first-time qualifiers.
Federer believes with the returning heavyweights, the likes of Goffin and Grigor Dimitrov and a new wave led by Alexander Zverev pushing hard, 2018 promises to be a vintage one.
"I hope also Kei, Tomas (Berdych) and Milos all find their way back on Tour and are back in Australia because that would make it quite epic," Federer said.
"Then you mix them together with the new guys from the World Tour Finals here who have just come off a great year, obviously are confident, want to stay in the top 10.
"They are sort of weaving their way in. You have the young guys coming through. I think it could be a very cool start to the year, which I'm really looking forward to."
(Reporting by Martyn Herman, editing by Ed Osmond)