Believe it or not, this might be just the beginning for Roger Federer

Before Roger Federer's return in January, most observers focused on the hard slog he faced rebuilding his ranking from No. 17. His spectacular win at the Australian Open was unexpected but hardly mind-blowing. He is, after all, Roger Federer.

What nobody really expected, though, is how liberating all that recuperation and rehabilitation time has been, finally freeing Federer from all woes concerning Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, et al. Federer had plenty of time to brood and evaluate while he was away for the second half of 2016. He was able to decide why and how he wanted to play when he returned.

The stunning win over his career-long nemesis Rafael Nadal in the Australian Open final confirmed that his desire to play exuberant, attacking, and -- yes -- flashy tennis was not only justifiable, it was lethal to his rivals. It has made all the difference in the world. And it made all the difference in another dominant run to the Indian Wells final, where he beat Swiss countryman Stan Wawrinka 6-4, 7-5 in Sunday's final.

Granted, the 18-time major champion benefited from some lucky breaks in the draw, but the ongoing Federer show continues to captivate audiences worldwide. The reality is that during the period when Djokovic dominated, Federer had ceased to amaze. Yet against all odds, Federer amazes again.

Federer is loving being Roger Federer again, and that's a formidable advantage. If you told him he could start at Wimbledon tomorrow, he would probably run out on Centre Court without changing out of his Indian Wells kit. He will be playing in Miami, but after that, who knows?

Federer wants to stay healthy and keep "the fire and motivation" that has fueled him recently.

"What I don't want to do is overplay and just get tired of traveling and tired of just playing tournaments and just entering and, I don't know, just doing people a favor just to be there with no aspirations," Federer said. "That's not why I'm playing."

There it is. In a very basic way, he's a man without a plan, which is unheard of at the elite level of tennis. Federer is listening to his body and to his heart. After a life of strict discipline and embracing and meeting obligations, he's operating by instinct. It's worked remarkably well on the court, where his slashing, lashing offensive tennis has earned him the two biggest prizes of 2017.

Federer is operating on an utterly different plane from everyone else. It has translated into a series of spectacular results. When he takes the court next week in Miami, he will do so without either Murray or Djokovic, both injured, in the draw. Thus, it will be an even greater chance to build on his already terrific season.

"I'd love to be world No. 1 again," Federer told reporters. "But anything else for me is not interesting. So that's why the rankings is not a priority right now. It's totally about being healthy, enjoying the tournaments I'm playing and trying to win those."

Federer's résumé contains as many items as the Manhattan telephone directory, but some of his significant achievements can't be quantified as crisply. One of the major ones is the way he's lifted the profile of Swiss tennis.

His best work in that regard was on display Sunday against Wawrinka. All those fans bearing Swiss flags on the grounds could have been mistaken for emergency responders from the Red Cross. Thankfully, they were just testaments to the aphorism, "a rising tide lifts all boats."

Wawrinka has often said that growing up in the shadow of the 18-time Grand Slam champion has been nourishing rather than intimidating. "It was great for me," Wawrinka told reporters after he booked his ticket to the Indian Wells final, pointing to the history the men share. "Best player ever, No. 1 player. I shared some amazing moments at Davis Cup, Olympics, a lot of practice experience. So it helped me a lot to make me the player I am now."

If greatness in tennis always implies a measure of greed for glory, call Wawrinka's relationship to Federer "guilt by association."

I'm [Stan's] No. 1 fan when it comes to his success and how he's been able to do it," Federer told the press before the final. "I know a lot what's going on in Stan's life, and he knows a lot what's going on in mine. We always support one another."

The bonhomie on display in the trophy presentation ceremony after Federer's bewitching and well-earned win was touching. It was also a part of another achievement that won't really show up on the stat sheets or the history books. That's the sheer wonder and joy Federer has brought to so many spectators, live and on television, at the age of 35.

At the age of 35, Roger Federer has brought sheer joy to his fans worldwide. Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Wawrinka calls Federer an a**hole after final

Federer had just beaten his compatriot 6-4 7-5 in the BNP Paribas Open final to earn a record-tying fifth Indian Wells title and the distinction of being the tournament's oldest winner.

Wawrinka broke down during his speech and made the cheeky comment to Federer which the crowd lapped up.

It was a touching moment between the Davis Cup teammates.

“I’m sorry, I’m just tired after 10 days. I’m sorry. I would like to congratulate Roger. He’s laughing, he’s an asshole,” said Wawrinka, to huge applause.

“I’ve lost some tough ones against you, but when you played the final in Australia, I was still your biggest fan. So congratulations on your comeback and congratulations on today.”

The 35-year-old Federer, who made a stunning return from a six-month injury layoff to win the Australian Open in January, capped an impressive run in the California desert in which he did not lose a set.

"I have totally exceeded my expectations. My goal was to be top eight by Wimbledon. This is just a dream start," Federer, who will climb four spots to world No.6 on Monday, told Sky Sports courtside.

"I understand the talk about (me getting back to) world No.1 with Andy (Murray) and Novak (Djokovic) not playing well and I'll try to back it up. But this is my 90th (tour-level) title so I'll try to enjoy this first."

The rematch of the Australian Open semi-final saw the close friends hold serve until the 10th game of the opening set when Federer, ahead 5-4, outlasted Wawrinka in a thrilling 21-shot rally for the service break.

Wawrinka, making his first appearance in an Indian Wells final, came out firing in the second set as he became the first player to break Federer this fortnight and then saved a pair of break points in the next game to move ahead 2-0.

But Federer never wavered as he coolly won the next three games and then broke Wawrinka in the 12th game to close out the match in 80 minutes.

On championship point, Federer jumped right on Wawrinka's serve and quickly had his compatriot running back and forth along the baseline.

Finally, when Wawrinka reached out desperately to send a forehand back, Federer charged to the net and slammed down a running forehand to clinch the title.

While the defeat left Wawrinka an emotional wreck, with the teary-eyed US Open champion calling himself Federer's "biggest fan", the popular champion was left to soak up a standing ovation.

Federer now joins Djokovic as a five-time winner at the event and becomes the oldest champion in the tournament's history, surpassing Jimmy Connors who was 31 when he triumphed in 1984.

"I was very sad when I couldn't come here last year so just being here is a beautiful feeling," Federer said during the trophy presentation.

"It's been just a fairytale week. I'm still on the comeback. I hope my body is going to allow me to keep on playing.

"I came here for the first time 17 years ago so to be here again as the champion is an amazing feeling. And I can't tell you enough what it means to me."

Roger Federer Completes Another Chapter in a ‘Fairy Tale’ Season

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — For a man who has, in his own mind, not yet completed his comeback, Roger Federer is faring rather well.

After winning the Australian Open and his 18th Grand Slam singles title in January, Federer, 35, breezed through a storm watch of a draw in Indian Wells without losing a set to win the season’s second significant tournament.

His 6-4, 7-5 victory over his Swiss compatriot Stan Wawrinka in Sunday’s final of the BNP Paribas Open was only the latest completed chapter in a season that Federer himself was calling a “fairy tale.”

Nobody else would have dreamed this up either, although Federer did have a premonition late last year, in the midst of his extended layoff because of knee problems.

“I didn’t know right away, because I’ve never been an injured guy, per se,” Federer said in an interview. “But I realized by October what an opportunity it was to be injured and what it could mean for the rest of my career. I didn’t think it was going to be this beautiful, but I’ll take it.”

If there had been any wood in the room where he was speaking, Federer might have considered knocking on it. Things have certainly broken his way as the two dominant forces in men’s tennis — Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray — are fighting their bodies and, perhaps, the toll of recent accomplishments. Federer dodged another threat here when the talented, unpredictable young Australian Nick Kyrgios retired with an illness before their quarterfinal match, giving Federer an extra day’s rest.

Djokovic and Murray lost early in Indian Wells, and they have withdrawn from this month’s Miami Open because of right elbow injuries.

“I’m as surprised as everybody else,” Federer said. “I did hear about Andy having some issues in Dubai already with his arm but only, like, vaguely.”

Federer said Wawrinka had mentioned to him that Murray’s arm was bothering him when Wawrinka and Murray trained together in Dubai.

“Look, it takes its toll,” Federer said of the grueling men’s game. “It’s going to be interesting who picks it up faster of the two guys — Novak or Andy — now.”

For the moment, Federer is the one heading to Miami as the favorite and the one setting a torrid 2017 pace. He has said that he would not consider his comeback complete until after Miami. He has also said that his goal when he returned to the tour after a six-month layoff was to be ranked in the top eight at the end of Wimbledon in July.

But it is time for some new blueprints. He will be ranked No. 6 on Monday, one spot ahead of Rafael Nadal, his longtime rival whom he has beaten twice already this season. Federer also leads the 2017 points race by a huge margin over Nadal and Wawrinka.

“It’s great, but you definitely have to reassess your goals maybe now and see, where do you go from here?” Federer said. “Because this was not part of the plan, to win Australia and Indian Wells, I can tell you that.”

It has been a season of big surprises, and the women’s final that preceded Federer and Wawrinka produced another one when Elena Vesnina won the first big singles title of her long career by coming back from 1-4 down in the second set to defeat her fellow Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova, 6-7 (6), 7-5, 6-4, in a test of endurance and nerve that lasted 3 hours 2 minutes.

Vesnina, 30, definitely earned this unexpected title, defeating Angelique Kerber, Venus Williams and Kuznetsova — all Grand Slam singles champions — by playing consistently aggressive tennis on a court where playing conditions were quick in this year’s unusually intense heat.

After reaching the final, she called 30 “the new 20,” and she is no doubt onto something, given that all the singles finalists here and at the Australian Open were 30 or older.

“The physical fitness and recovery is really on a different level now,” said Vesnina, the No. 14 seed. “Everybody’s taking care of their health, about what they’re eating, same with Svetlana. She really change her diet, I think, for last couple years. Me as well. I’m more healthy eating than when I was 17, 19 years old.”

She added: “I think all these little things, that makes the difference.”

Federer‘s fifth title in Indian Wells made him the oldest man to win a Masters 1000 singles title, surpassing Andre Agassi, who was 34 when he won in Cincinnati in 2004.

Federer also has beaten Wawrinka twice this season and in 20 of their 23 matches over all. Wawrinka, for all his improvement and for all the tactical acumen of his coach, Magnus Norman, has still never beaten Federer on any surface other than clay.

Their paths and careers are particularly intertwined. They have won Olympic doubles gold and the Davis Cup together and continue to share the services of the fitness trainer Pierre Paganini. But the emotions can still get raw, as they did in defeat for Wawrinka as he teared up as he received his trophy on Sunday afternoon.

He looked over to see Federer laughing at him and then jokingly responded by using a vulgarity to describe him. Federer later explained that he was only laughing because he was trying to cheer Wawrinka up and keep the mood light at a heavy moment.

“I guess I achieved that,” Federer said.

It has been a season of achievements, big and small, and to watch Federer at this moment in the sun is to see a champion moving and swinging freely, be it the first point or match point, which he won with a forehand volley on Sunday.

“Stan missed a first serve and then it was second serve, step in and stay aggressive, come to the net and finish,” Federer said. “You vision it, and you do it. And it’s so simple, and when you can’t play that way, everything becomes so complex. I know I’m riding a wave right now.”

He added: “I think as long as the body is this way and I can remind myself, don’t play with fear and don’t play with too much pressure and don’t try to do well, I’ll be able to play like this. But the body needs to be there so the mind will follow.”

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