WHEN Roger Federer won his hometown tournament in Basle earlier this month, ending his longest run without a title for more than nine years, Tim Henman was among those who texted their congratulations. "I think he sent me the same message last year and again this year," Federer smiled. "He said: 'Don't forget, I'm the only player to beat you twice in Basle.' Tim always has a little dry joke on the side - and it was a good one, because it's true."
Federer's friendship with Henman is a reminder that the 30-year-old Swiss is of a different generation to Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray, the three other headline acts in a golden era for tennis. Consider Federer's earliest days on the tour: Pat Rafter was his first opponent in a Grand Slam tournament (the 1999 French Open), Michael Chang his first at the Australian Open (in 2000) and Jiri Novak and Yevgeny Kafelnikov his first and second at Wimbledon (1999 and 2000).
Nevertheless, as Federer prepares to begin the defence of his Barclays ATP World Tour Finals title in London, he has no plans to follow any old friends into retirement. "I look more than a year ahead of time at what's going to come towards me," Federer said as he sat back in his chair in the players' lounge at last week's Paris Masters. "I had a Nike meeting yesterday about my clothes for 2013, starting in Australia until the French Open. Everything is always a one or two-year plan ahead."
In an age when the physical demands have never been greater - witness Djokovic's aches and pains since he won his third Grand Slam title of the year two months ago or Nadal's knee problems - Federer's longevity is remarkable. Although he has not won a Grand Slam title for 22 months, the way he triumphed in Basle and Paris this month suggested there is plenty of life in the old warhorse yet. He is the favourite at the O2 Arena, where he can become the first player to win the year-ending championships six times.
Being careful with his schedule has been crucial. Weary and bruised after a long summer, Federer took six weeks off from the middle of September with the specific goal of peaking again in Paris and London. It is true that he can be more flexible than most: you cannot imagine a tournament director denying the Swiss a late wild card, while the number of career matches he has played meant he could miss last month's mandatory Shanghai Masters without punishment.
Nevertheless, there are other reasons why he has an outstanding fitness record, such as his attacking style of play. "That's part of it," Federer said. "Shorter points, maybe, yes. I try to take advantage of playing offensive. When you're offensive you usually control where you're going to run. When you're on defence, you don't know where you're going to go, so you're affected by what your opponent's going to give to you, which I think is an advantage. But also look at how tense some players play, usually those lower in the rankings. They must burn more energy on a regular basis. I try to relax as a player. I think that helps on a daily basis."
Now that he has joined the thirty-somethings, how does Federer feel the day after a big match? "I guess I know what to expect. That's the good thing. Some days you just feel your body not aching in terms of muscles, but you just feel the ankles or it's like the oil's missing a little bit here. You just feel like it maybe takes you a bit longer to feel like you want to jump out of bed and go for a run. Whereas as a teenager you can just jump out of bed and go for a half-an-hour run and say: 'Well that felt great.' Maybe some older guys feel that way, but I don't. I feel like you start slower, take a shower, take a stretch and then you're ready to go. So it takes a bit more time, like with a car, to get going. But once you're going it's great. Then the good thing is you don't have these unexpected brutal pains that you have as a younger guy: because you push too hard, the next day you're so sore.
"Obviously I'm much more professional today than I was when I was younger, because injuries at this point would be unfortunate, whereas at the beginning if you're injured just once in a while it's just normal."
Does Federer fear for the future of Nadal, who plays a more defensive and much more physical game? "I was thinking this way three years ago, when I felt like every match he played was a massive grind, standing way back in the court," Federer said.
"He was playing way more passively. Today he is playing much more offensive, up on the baseline. It seems like he does take advantage of the better draw today. He still spends a lot of time on court, but that's more to do with playing slowly, taking his time. Today I have less of a worry for some reason. Even though he has accumulated a lot of matches and his body obviously feels that - we all feel that eventually - I'm not so pessimistic about his chances of playing longer."
With Djokovic overtaking the two men who together had dominated the game since 2004 - and who remain major challengers - the task of winning a first Grand Slam title has become even tougher for Murray. In his eight Grand Slam semi-finals and three finals, the Scot's only defeat to anyone outside the big three was against Andy Roddick at Wimbledon two years ago.
"I've always said he is plenty good enough to win one of these events," Federer said. "It's just that the guys he usually loses to in Grand Slams are not just some journeymen who happen to be there." Federer added: "He's past that tough hurdle [when you think]: 'Oh I haven't won a Grand Slam.' That probably stressed him out more one and a half years ago, so now I think he is a bit more laidback, because he has gone through these ups and downs and knows how to handle them.
"Nevertheless, Federer cast some doubt on the merits of Murray's recent run, when he won successive tournaments in Bangkok, Tokyo and Shanghai. "I'm not taking anything away from Asia, but was Asia the strongest this year?" he asked. "I'm not sure. Novak wasn't there, I wasn't there - I played in the [Shanghai] final last year - and Rafa lost early, but it was a good effort by him."
When asked about his own year, in which a haul of three titles (so far) is his smallest since 2002, Federer usually points out that he came within one point of beating Djokovic in the US Open semi-finals. "I've had some really tough losses, but I kept believing that still the year wasn't over," he said. "I can still finish this year on a high."
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