At this point, Roger Federer can be anything he chooses to the global community of tennis: elder statesman, role model, ambassador-at-large and overlooked contender who's still got the grit, game and desire to win at the highest level.
On Monday night in Mason, Ohio, he once again showed that while he may be all that at various times, most of all he's a fully invested, day-in, day-out pro tennis player, just trying to make his way in the game he loves.
Ten days after he turned 34 years old, and the day after Andy Murray passed him to move up to No. 2 in the ATP world rankings, Federer played an astonishingly complete, creative match to begin his drive to win the Cincinnati Masters 1000 for a seventh time.
Federer, the No. 2 seed, met No. 22 Roberto Bautista Agut of Spain and ripped through him with ease in just over an hour 6-4, 6-4. It wasn't as close as the score indicated, for Bautista Agut never saw a break point, while Federer had 10. The loser's only consolation was that he managed to fend off eight of those 10 break points, largely a result of the hyperaggressive tactics Federer failed to capitalize on (his mindset throughout the entire match) in those key occasions.
You had to wonder, was this a dress rehearsal for the coming week?
The court in Cincinnati clearly is playing fast, and that emboldened Federer. Yet the impudence with which he consistently took Bautista Agut's second serves with something like a half-volley up at the service line was shocking. So was the casual way Federer attacked the net behind his own second serve -- a ploy he had plenty of chance to perfect in the opening set, given his dismal first-serve conversion rate of 26 percent.
No matter. Federer figured out early on that Bautista Agut was unable to hurt him with that bread-and-butter two-handed backhand. Bautista Agut had the same idea, but Federer's one-hander is a different weapon altogether and it was in excellent working order. His assortment of chips and slices mixed with flat and topspin drives kept Bautista Agut off balance long enough to repeatedly set up Federer for a killing forehand or a net attack -- resulting in a volley winner or a Bautista Agut passing-shot error.
Federer has been adding offense to his game for a long time now, aided by the counsel of his coach, Stefan Edberg. But both the amount and kind of offense he brought to bear against Bautista Agut were a revelation. On top of everything else, time and again, Federer drew his net-shy opponent forward with teasing short balls.
All this raised an interesting question: Was it just a one-off strategy Federer decided to pursue against an opponent particularly vulnerable to it, or was the all-time Grand Slam singles champion providing us with a preview of what's in store as he tries to add an 18th Grand Slam title to his count in New York?
If the answer is the latter, Federer's upcoming matches will be fascinating to behold. He may be 34, but he's in peak health. Sure, he's happy and, in most ways, he's content. Through his best years, Federer looked well-fed and almost jolly. Now he looks gaunt, almost wolfish. It's hard to shake the feeling that he still thinks he's got unfinished business in tennis, and the one thing he is not is complacent.
Here's what we know: Federer has come to grips with the fact that he isn't going to out-rally Novak Djokovic, probably not Murray, or even the likes of Kei Nishikori, Marin Cilic, Stan Wawrinka, or perhaps even his old, presently beleaguered nemesis, Rafael Nadal. Federer seems to have finally acknowledged that if he's going to win big again, he's going to do it by taking chances. By playing bold, audacious tennis.
That inevitably means a risky, attacking game. Chip-and-charge tennis. Sneak-attack, drop-shot, change-of-pace, point-blank-volley-exchange tennis.
But that also amounts to the kind of tennis that the pundits and wise men in the commentary booths and news sites have said is no longer feasible in today's game.
So add it up. Something has to give. Take the game that nobody says can work anymore and put it in hands infused with genius, then sit back and see what happens.
Enjoy the show.