Roger Federer sashays through the corridors of London’s O2 every bit the returning king. A year on from missing the ATP World Tour Finals following knee surgery, he is back at the event for the 15th time, his every move scrutinised as he swaggers from one interview to the next.
It wavers from the sublime — almost poetically describing in one television interview the “beautiful” nature of his remarkable season at the age of 36 — to the ridiculous of reading out cockney rhyming slang to camera.
“Blimey mate, I’m Hank Marvin” and, “I can’t believe my mince pies” have rarely been delivered so suavely — seemingly no request too much for the 19-time Grand Slam winner.
The delight of being in London seems genuine, as is being back at the top of his game, following surgery on the meniscus he tore while running a bath for his twin daughters, a faltering return and then six months of additional rehabilitation.
“The moment I went into surgery was a scary moment for me because I’d never had surgery before,” Federer tells Standard Sport.
“The moment I woke up from surgery, looking down on my knee and going, ‘Oh my God, I have an operated knee’, I didn’t know if I was ever going to come back from this.”
At the time, Federer’s mindset was “let’s hope for the best” but he also allowed himself to be at peace knowing the most successful career in tennis history was likely to be over.
“I was okay with the idea of it all ending,” he says.
“You know, maybe as far ago as winning Wimbledon for the first time in 2003 I was okay if it all ended. I know it sounds strange but I’d achieved my lifelong dream of winning a Wimbledon title.
“But really, ever since Paris in 2009 [when he won the only Grand Slam to have eluded him, the French Open], I was totally at peace with it ending the next day.”
What has followed eight years on from that has been the most astonishing of sporting renaissances, aided by the similar resurgence of Rafael Nadal, the world No1 and, if fit, the likeliest obstacle to Federer’s seventh ATP World Tour Finals success.
That he finds himself here, casting his mind to a year back and watching Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic — now facing their own personal injury plights — slugging it out for London glory, he finds it slightly baffling to be in this place again.
When he sat down with his team at the beginning of the year, the season goals were twofold: to be fit for Wimbledon and make the top eight for the end-of-year finals.
Instead, he has two Grand Slams to his name in 2017 — the Australian Open and Wimbledon — and has won half the tournaments he has entered during the course of the year. He already has one victory here, with an opening 6-4, 7-6 success over Jack Sock on Sunday.
“It’s such a cool feeling because it’s nice to be surprised later in your life,” he says.
“It’s one thing feeling that way in the beginning of your career, it’s just something that happens and you don’t know how it happened. But to do this now was such a beautiful thing and every time it was a surprise: Australia, Miami, Indian Wells.
“I’ve overachieved completely. My goal was Wimbledon and hopefully to be fit for the second half of the season. So, it’s all just beautiful.”
Federer could be forgiven for not wanting 2017 to end but loves the sense that a year, which he describes as “perfect” and he puts on a par with 2006, 2007 and 2009 when he reached all the Grand Slam finals, ends in London.
“I love playing in London with Wimbledon and this,” he says. “It’s funny as I don’t know the city well, there’s never sightseeing. It’s always so busy and compressed when I’m here but it’s a place I know I’ll return to for business and leisure.
“I love the fans here, I really do. They know their stuff here, they love tennis. Wimbledon to the World Finals is like night and day but it’s great to be in a tennis hot spot. It’s very important for the men’s game that we are actually not somewhere where tennis is irrelevant.”
How long Federer remains relevant in the men’s game is another matter. He would love to take the Grand Slam tally to 20 and vie with the Nadal for the No1 spot next season.
But he is no longer bothered by the sense he must bow out at the top, at the same time as genuinely having no idea when it will all end.
“I gave up a long time ago caring about rankings and how I go out, what people think and what’s right and what’s wrong,” he says. “Now, it’s just going out to play. I don’t want to think about the end, I just want to take it a year at a time and then if it’s over that’s it.”
For now, he is simply immersed in the 2017 fairy tale, and victory on Sunday would be the ultimate fairy tale finale.
“But fairy tales don’t always play out like that do they?” he says. “All I see is my next opponent and hope to finish strong. I feel I can do it. Will I do it? I don’t know.”