Swiss former no.1 Roger Federer. Photo: AP
As Roger Federer acclaims his Spanish rival Rafael Nadal's recovery from the depths of knee injury despair to the No.1 ranking as "an unbelievable comeback", his own position remains less bull than bear. No grand slam finals appearance this year for just the second time since 2002. No guarantee of a place in the year-end ATP World Tour Finals. Just one title so far in 2013.
But, first, the good news story: Nadal's.
"One year ago people were saying he might never play tennis again,'' Federer said after his first round-doubles win with proud local Zhang Ze at the Shanghai Rolex Masters. "One year later he's world No. 1. That's how quick things can go in tennis, which is great. On the other hand, you got also the other extreme the other way sometimes. You write off a player a little bit too fast.
"I'm really happy that Rafa's proven himself, for himself personally, clearly, but also to the rest of the world that you never write off someone like him. I'm very happy for him. I mean, the US Open was an unbelievable victory, getting that done. Early on you just thought things went well for him. But he proved himself so many times this year that he deserves to be world No. 1. Nobody is arguing with it.''
Now, less happily, the other news: the decline of the 17-slam man.
"I always knew that this year, after a very tough year in 2012, the Olympics, was going to be a bit of a more quiet year. I expected myself probably not to be as successful and as busy playing matches and tournaments,'' said Federer, who has a first round singles bye in Shanghai, and could play Lleyton Hewitt in the second.
"My mindset now is, OK, next year is going to be a great year again where I'm not going to have that many points to defend, especially at some very key moments where I consider myself a favorite. For that reason I'm really looking forward to 2014 already.
"But I feel like I also need the end of this year to prepare for '14 because it has been a bit of a rocky patch the last couple of months. But my expectations will always remain very high. That will never change. As long as I'm physically and mentally fine, there's no reason for me not to be taking part in the big matches. That's what I'm looking forward to in 2014, to be part of those matches.''
A semi-finalist at the Australian Open, quarter-final loser at the French and shock second-round departee at Wimbledon, Federer has not played since his fourth round loss to his former bunny — well, one of them, but those were the days — Tommy Robredo at the US Open. The 32-year-old took a break — from tennis, not training, not completely — in Switzerland, then trained in the extreme heat of his other base, Dubai.
It has not been a year to savour, but nor is he one to dwell. "Clearly now that the four slams have passed, you reflect a little bit. But I'm really focused on finishing strong. That was the main idea behind another strong couple of weeks. Otherwise I could have maybe played an extra week last week,'' Federer said.
"But I really thought right now what I need is a really solid block of practice. I guess in some ways also 2014 is in the back of my mind and also the end of the year right now.
"I didn't want to focus too much on what happened the last two months. The US Open, I hardly ever thought about it if I look back, at the Robredo match, so forth. I didn't think it was that bad, like maybe the way it looked. I think it was tough conditions. Tommy played well. It wasn't my day, all these things. It's one of those things you just want to move on from. But I think my game's been coming back, which has been very important. Now it's about staying positive and working hard every single day.''
As the impact of Typhoon Fitow washed over a sopping Shanghai and washed out play on the outside courts, Federer's night out with Zhang was a predictable highlight of a limited schedule. The pair clobbered Kevin Anderson and Dmitry Tursunov 6-2, 6-1, even if the battle for the nation's tennis affection was won long ago.
Federer says he usually only plays doubles with "Swiss guys", apart from this year's Halle cameo with fellow veteran Tommy Haas. If he played in Sanghai this year, it needed to be "something different, something special'', he had decreed. That ended up being Zhang, on centre court, Monday night live.
"I thought, that's great, that's good for the game, good for tennis here in China,'' said the man who remains the game's biggest name. "That's kind of the ultimate goal, is to partner up with a Chinese up-and-coming player and promote the game at the same time. I'm just so happy for Zhang Ze, that he played really well. I really am, because he couldn't have played any better.''