Federer's fire still burns deep

It was only a little tournament in Madrid -- on a patch of cloying blue clay, no less -- and the opponent was not nicknamed Rafa or Nole, but Roger Federer was ecstatic.

He raised his arms in triumph over Tomas Berdych two weeks ago and screamed so loud his eyes disappeared. Keep in mind, this is a 30-year-old guy, a 16-time Grand Slam singles champion who won his first ATP World Tour title 11 years ago.

"It's been a great spell," Federer said afterward. "I couldn't be more happy right now."

Believe him. The victory in Madrid -- both his archrivals, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal had departed earlier, grumbling about the sorry state of the court -- left Federer as the best player on the planet for the past eight months.

His 6-2, 7-6 (4) loss to Djokovic in the semifinals at Rome last Saturday will not leave Federer dejected for too long.

"Overall, I don't think I was playing good enough," said Federer, who committed 42 unforced errors, more than twice the number of Djokovic. "Plus, I was a bit tired. I've been playing a lot lately."

Federer is 48-4 since last year's U.S. Open, with seven titles. For the record, Nadal (43-8) and Djokovic (36-10) are well in his wake. The win vaulted Federer past Nadal, for a week anyway, back into the No. 2 ranking spot. Now, the possibility of a return to No. 1 looms in the coming months.

The cynic will quickly point out that Federer has failed to win a major in that torrid stretch -- and, in fact, is 0-for-8 over the past two years. Djokovic, who beat Federer in a rousing U.S. Open semifinal (saving two match points), has taken the past three and is eyeing his fourth major in a row in the coming weeks in Paris -- which promises to be the dominant storyline.

That said, this summer presents a marvelous opportunity -- perhaps the best of the rest of Federer's career -- to push his legacy beyond the reach of the baying hounds on his trail.

In the next four months, three majors and the Olympics will be contested. Winning one or two of these events would probably keep Federer's widely perceived place as the Greatest of All Time intact for the foreseeable future. It would give him a healthy lead over Nadal (10 major titles) and the rapidly ascending Djokovic (five).

Although Federer has said the Olympics at Wimbledon are his priority, you know he'll be competing hard to win in Paris and London before that competition arrives.

But, like the major league team scuffling down the stretch, trying to make the playoffs, Federer is at the stage where …

… "He needs a little bit of help," according to ESPN analyst Darren Cahill, who worked briefly with Federer as a coach. "I think it's somewhat in the hands of the other guys. He needs some help in the draw and a bit of good fortune to make it happen."

Like in Madrid, for instance. The Nos. 1 and 2-ranked players both lost to fellow countrymen.

From the beginning, Djokovic was openly irritated by the blue clay. After he failed to convert any of seven break points against Janko Tipsarevic in the quarterfinals, he said, "I want to forget this week as soon as possible and move to the real clay courts."

Nadal had a similar sentiment after losing to Fernando Verdasco for the first time in 14 meetings. Rafa served for the match twice; it ended his 22-match win streak on clay.

Still, you got the sense that neither player was truly concerned. With a busy clay run-up to Roland Garros and a brutally compressed summer schedule, they simply can't afford to go deep into every tournament they play.

Federer, who was coming off a five-week hiatus to heal some aches and pains, seemed to surprise himself.

"I was away and it didn't take much time for me to get my confidence back, especially now that I've been playing so well for the past nine months."

Cahill believes that Federer, despite his age, is as motivated as ever.

"He's the type of player that rises to these challenges," Cahill said. "He's playing some of the best tennis we've seen in the last 12 months. He listens to his body and knows how much work he needs going into these big events. Most of the time, he's got the plan right."

Cahill believes Federer's best match came last year at the French Open when he beat Djokovic in the semifinals.

"You saw the fire when he beat Novak last year -- it was there," Tennis Channel analyst Lindsay Davenport said. "It was interesting to hear him say he's gotten tight in big matches with those guys at Roland Garros. Sometimes admitting that helps.

"I think he's got a shot."

No one is more aware of the stakes than Federer. You might say his competitive clock is ticking.

"If I do win a Grand Slam, I'll be extremely close to world No. 1," he said before playing in Madrid. "It is a dream for me to try to achieve that this year again and I will try to chase it as hard as I can and see if it is possible."