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Roger Federer rolls back years to start as the man to beat

THERE may have been an audible sigh when news reached Flushing Meadows that Rafael Nadal, the reigning champion, was forced out of the US Open with a wrist injury but you wouldn't have found Roger Federer moaning too much.

Roger Federer won the Cincinnati Masters, beating David Ferrer in the final. Picture: Andy Lyons
Roger Federer won the Cincinnati Masters, beating David Ferrer in the final. Picture: Andy Lyons

Of course, a natural born winner like the Swiss would never admit it publicly, but knowing the reborn Spaniard would not be in a position to steamroller the opposition like he so brutally did last year would have certainly put a spring in his step.

With Novak Djokovic, the new No.1 seed following Nadal's withdrawal, enduring the kind of slump in form which has affected Andy Murray all too often, is there anyone who would not wager a sum on Federer finally ending his run of eight majors without a title come September 8?

Certainly the 33-year-old has belied his age of late. A triumph in the final warm up before the US Open starts on Monday at the Cincinnati Masters was perfect preparation for another tilt at glory. While 2013 was a year of difficulty, 2014 has produced far more to cheer the swathes of Federer fans all over the world.

The introduction of Stefan Edberg into his corner has helped. The Swede, known for a flawless net game which saw him win six grand slams, has clearly tried to ensure Federer has been paying attention to honing his magical skills. A fresh willingness to come to the net has been employed with success, thus ensuring a shortening of points to help protect a back injury which has eased massively but, as with anyone in the twilight of their careers, fitness problems are never too far away.

Federer will win his 18th slam if the form book is anything to go by although the history books suggest otherwise. It has been over a decade since someone in their 30s (Andre Agassi in Australia 2003 at the age of 32 years, eight months) triumphed at a major. It would also make him the oldest major winner since Andrew Gimeno won the 1972 French Open at 34. Nevertheless, with Djokovic looking unconvincing since beating Federer in the Wimbledon final and with two successive heartbreaking final defeats here, everything appears set up for the No.2 seed.

Murray's form is too patchy to guarantee anything and his draw is unforgiving. Milos Raonic and Grigor Dimitrov have begun to show more consistent flashes of their undoubted potential yet the common consensus is that their time has still not come.

All roads are leading to a typically epic final showdown between Federer and Djokovic but what of Murray?

No titles since that glorious Wimbledon afternoon of 2013 but, encouragingly, he has arrived here free of any aches of pains - something which was not the case when he made his slam breakthrough in the two years ago. A slump down the rankings have ensured his path to the final is treacherous to say the least.

Yet he still believes. "I would say so I am fitter now than when I won here in 2012, " said the Scot, who will begin his push against Dutch world No.70 Robin Haase. "It's not much of a secret that my back had been troubling me for 18 months or so before I decided to take some time out and have the operation. It took me a little bit longer than expected to get back to full fitness and be able to train at 100% but thankfully I'm now there.

"I worked incredibly hard in my last Miami training block and feel like I'm in the best shape I have been for a long time. I'd probably say it's an open tour right now. You have a lot of younger guys playing very well, and also a few of the more experienced players picking up big wins.

"It's always a special tournament here in New York, what with the city, the atmosphere and night matches, I'm really looking forward to getting started."

To have not won anything of note for 13 months would weigh heavy on most. Murray, typically, is unperturbed. "I'm not concerned, it's always tough when you come back from an injury and it takes time to get the consistency," he added.

"The standard on the tour is very high, there are no easy matches and it is difficult to reach the semi-final or final of a tournament, let alone win a title. I've struggled a little bit in the later stages of the tournaments this year but I think I have also put in some very good performances and I'm confident that I'm back to where I want to be, so it's just a case of being patient and believing in myself.

"I put a lot of pressure on myself to win grand slams, especially Wimbledon, so when I finally did it, there was a sense of relief. But having won it once, I now know what it takes and I want to win it again.

"I feel I can win more grand slams and that's why I work hard every day in the gym, on the court and what I am completely focused on."

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