Somehow, it seemed so easy for so many people to write off Roger Federer.
He was past his 30th birthday, they would point out.
About 2 1/2 years went by without any additions to his Grand Slam trophy case, the thinking went.
First Rafael Nadal, then Novak Djokovic, overtook Federer in the rankings and as the man to beat at major tournament after major tournament.
Well, look at the guy now. Wimbledon champion, once again, stretching his record total to 17 Grand Slam championships. Ranked No. 1, once again. And -- heading into Monday's start of the U.S. Open -- the favourite to reach the final, once again.
"I'm out of the business of predicting Federer anymore," said Andre Agassi, a two-time U.S. Open champion and runner-up to Federer in 2005. "He's continually surprised me with his achievements; he no longer surprises me. I think he has a lot more tennis in him. He looked as comfortable as I've ever seen him on the tennis court in England. He maybe needs one or two things to fall for him to knock down a few more (Grand Slam titles) at this stage of his career, but he's certainly as capable of it as anybody I've ever seen."
Federer's pursuit of a sixth U.S. Open title at age 31 will certainly be among the main angles to keep track of on the hard courts of Flushing Meadows.
Other stories to watch include:
-- Djokovic's bid for a second consecutive championship in New York and fifth major title in two years;
-- Andy Murray's attempt to follow up his Olympic gold medal with Britain's first Grand Slam men's singles title since 1936;
-- Andy Roddick's hope for one more deep run in front of the home fans;
-- Four-time major champion Kim Clijsters' farewell to tennis in what she says is the last tournament of her career;
-- Venus Williams' return to the U.S. Open a year after withdrawing from the tournament and revealing she was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease;
-- Serena Williams' try for her 15th major trophy -- and, of course, what sort of interaction she might have with on-court officials after a foot-fault tirade in the 2009 semifinals, then a "you're just unattractive inside" monologue in the 2011 final.
"My mind frame this year is that something is going to happen, for sure, because something always happens to me at the Open, whether it's a horrendous line call that's two feet in or whether it's a grunt and I get a point penalized or a foot-fault when I actually don't foot-fault. I'm prepared for something to happen," said the younger Williams sister, a three-time champion in New York whose serve was dominant recently en route to her fifth title at Wimbledon and two gold medals at the Olympics.
Another key question is what sort of effect there will be from the short turnaround and shift to hard courts after the grass-court London Games.
"There's no doubt about it: This is not an ideal preparation," said Federer, routed 6-2, 6-1, 6-4 by Murray in the Olympic final on Aug. 5, less than a month after beating him in four sets on the same court in the Wimbledon final.
"It's not impossible," Federer added, "but it's just very hard on the body and mind to travel halfway around the world, go on a different surface. ... In the past, you would take maybe a few weeks off for a top player, then prepare for three brutal weeks on hard courts, then come over here wanting to fire (on) all cylinders. This year, it's different."
He once won 40 matches in a row at the U.S. Open, a streak that ended with a five-set loss to Juan Martin del Potro in the 2009 final. That was followed by semifinal setbacks against Djokovic each of the past two years, including what Federer calls "that brutal match with Novak" -- in 2011, when Federer took the first two sets, then held two match points, but couldn't close the deal.
On the first match point, Djokovic smacked a gutsy forehand return winner that barely landed on a line and drew something of a rebuke from Federer afterward.
"I never played that way," Federer said at the time. "I believe in the hard-work's-going-to-pay-off kind of thing, because early on, maybe I didn't always work at my hardest. So for me, this is very hard to understand how (he could) play a shot like that on match point."
Djokovic went on to victory in the final against Nadal, the 2010 U.S. Open champion and 11-time major winner who is currently out with knee problems and won't be in New York. That was part of a stretch in which the Serb and the Spaniard split up nine Grand Slam trophies in a row, shutting out Federer and leaving him stuck on No. 16 for more than two full seasons.
-- The Associated Press