Federer, Djokovic, Williams sisters highlight Open

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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.”

Harumph.

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.

Given how rare it is for a man past 30 to remain in the upper echelon of tennis _ a not-quite-31 Federer was the oldest Wimbledon champion since Arthur Ashe in 1975 _ and the ascension of a couple of rivals in their mid-20s, there were plenty of whispers that the Swiss superstar might be done.

A man who reached a record 10 consecutive major finals from 2005-07, then another eight in a row from 2008-10, suddenly was losing the occasional Grand Slam _ gasp! _ quarterfinal.

What, after all, was left to motivate him?

What could drive him to keep up?

Djokovic and Nadal, to name two, never doubted Federer would reassert himself.

“He was always there,” Djokovic said. “Last couple years, he didn’t win a major, but he was in a couple of finals and always semifinals. He’s always playing close matches against whoever.”

Federer beat Djokovic in the Wimbledon semifinals, then topped Murray for triumph No. 7 at the All England Club, tying Pete Sampras and William Renshaw (who played in the 1880s) for the most in history. That also allowed Federer to return to No. 1 and, a week later, break Sampras’ career record for most time atop the ATP rankings.

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