What a difference a year makes. Twelve months ago Roger Federer limped away from Indian Wells after a comprehensive straight sets quarter-final defeat to Rafael Nadal, having aggravated a persistent back injury in the process.
From then onwards, Federer’s season turned progressively sourer, culminating in humiliating losses to Sergiy Stakhovsky at Wimbledon and Tommy Robredo at the US Open.
The Swiss was barely able to keep his place in the top eight and found himself overtaken by resurgent compatriot Stanislas Wawrinka.
Casting his mind back to March 2013, Federer revealed that he felt fine heading from Dubai to California but then pulled something in his back while stretching for a return in his second round match.
He took a month off following Indian Wells but instead of being able to work on his game as planned, he was purely trying to manage the injury.
“Instead of resting I was just sore,” he said.
“It just kept on lingering, lingering, lingering, and then eventually it went away. But, you know, being sore every day leaves you sort of scarred a little bit. And instead of preparing, I was just trying to get back.
So that training block was a bit of a wasted sort of stretch for me. Instead of coming out of it feeling at the top of my game, I didn't feel that way. That affected me. I did return okay. Once the clay came around at least the pain was gone, but mentally I took a hit, I think, just knowing that I’d never felt in pain for that long before.”
In retrospect, Federer feels that the lost month of training was the beginning of his slump as he lost sharpness in his game which cost him at the French Open and Wimbledon.
“I actually played all right in Rome (where he made the final, losing to Nadal), played some good really good tennis,” he said.
“And then in Paris I played all right too, and then in Halle I won. I just had a bad patch against (Jo-Wilfried) Tsonga in the quarters at the French (he lost in straight sets), and then Wimbledon I had a bit of a surprise loss, but I wasn't in pain then.”
“I just felt that I was lacking training from the weeks I lost in April.
I could feel for a while that I was playing the wrong way. Little things crept into my game that shouldn't have and probably wouldn't have if I’d been able to have that full training block.”
Federer says that he first realised he would have to treat his back with much more care for the rest of his career after a clay-court tournament in Hamburg last July where he injured it again playing football as a warm-up routine.
Since then he’s been focusing heavily on core exercises as part of his training.
“I realized that just having treatment is not going to do it any good,” he said. “You have to work on it to become stronger.
I’ve always done a lot of exercises but I’ve just had to adjust them, do them a little differently, at different speeds.”
“So I just went through all of that earlier this year with Stefan (Edberg), my physio Pierre, my conditioning coach, doctor, another physio.
We just talked about it all and laid it all out on the table what I've been doing and what everybody thinks what I should do from then on.”
Last Wimbledon, David Ferrer famously admitted that dealing with pain is part and parcel of being a tennis player, a revelation which shocked many armchair viewers and Federer says he’s no different, especially as he’s got older.
“Tennis players are in pain quite often,” he said.
“I’ve had to just accept that, you're just going to be in pain a little bit, like every other player. Don't believe you're not going to be in pain. It's just part of being a tennis player.”
But so far in 2014, Federer could not be happier with his game and after coming tantalisingly close to another Indian Wells title on Sunday, losing in a third set tiebreak to Novak Djokovic, he’s shown that he may well be in with a shot at an 18th major title later this year.
He says he’s delighted that he’s been able to produce such form this early in the season as he wasn’t expecting to play his best for another month or so.
“I think the results are better than I thought they would be,” he said.
“I expected myself to play better starting March/April. Maybe in Miami, on the clay, that kind of time. So for it to all start earlier gives me more information how my body is, how my mind is, and from now on I really feel I am where I want to be, or where I wanted to be six months ago.”
“So that's very encouraging and super positive, really.
Now it's just a matter of keeping that up, taking the right decisions not to overplay, not to underplay and to enjoy myself. Because at the end of the day, that's also very important. In terms of having the fire and wanting to win every single match and in practice trying to improve as much as you can, I think I've found that balance right now, so it's very encouraging.”