Pete Sampras has spent most of his retirement watching his entries in the record books being rubbed out. The American must have heaved a sigh of relief two summers ago when Roger Federer lost his world No 1 ranking for the second time. Federer, who had regained the top spot 11 months earlier, had taken his total number of weeks at the head of the list to 285, just one week fewer than Sampras' all-time record.
Within a month of being toppled, Federer had dropped to No 3, his first taste of life outside the top-two ranking positions for more than six years. As Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic built thereafter on their standing as the world's two best players – they have each won four of the last eight Grand Slam tournaments – it seemed that Federer's chances of removing another Sampras entry from the record books had gone for good.
Today, however, the Swiss is within striking distance of what would arguably be his greatest feat. After a remarkable five months in which he has won six of the eight tournaments in which he has competed, the six-times Wimbledon champion has the world No 1 ranking – and Sampras' record – back in his sights.
The rankings are based on a rolling total of points won over the last 12 months. Djokovic is the current leader, thanks largely to his annus mirabilis in 2011, but Federer has won more points than any other player in the last seven months.
Having had a moderate spring in 2011, when Djokovic and Nadal were filling their boots, Federer now has the chance to gain even further ground in the next two months, beginning with this week's Miami Masters. Indeed, if he has a reasonable run during the forthcoming clay and grass-court seasons, the likelihood is that Federer would overtake both Nadal and Djokovic even if the Spaniard and the Serb defend successfully their French Open and Wimbledon titles this summer.
Regaining the No 1 spot would eclipse even Federer's remarkable return to the top three years ago, when he took advantage of the knee problems Nadal suffered at the French Open, after which the Spaniard was unable to defend his Wimbledon title. This time 30-year-old Federer is competing against younger – and fully fit – rivals in 25-year-old Nadal and 24-year-olds Djokovic and Andy Murray, during what has been hailed as the greatest era in tennis history.
A return to the top had seemed unlikely in September, when Federer followed a quarter-final exit to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at Wimbledon with defeat to Djokovic in the semi-finals of the US Open. However, since returning to competition in November following a six-week break, he has been unstoppable.
Having won three tournaments in a row in Basle, Paris and London at the end of last year, Federer completed another hat-trick by winning at Indian Wells last weekend following victories in Rotterdam and Dubai. In 41 matches since the US Open he has lost just twice, to Nadal in the semi-finals of the Australian Open and to John Isner on Swiss clay in the Davis Cup.
Federer believes he may have been helped by the fact that most playing surfaces today are of a similar speed, even if he would generally prefer them to be faster. "Today I think when you're on a roll it's easier to keep going," he said. "I'm not actually taking credit away from myself – or Rafa or Novak for that matter – but I think you can see with the Davis Cup that it's not that much of an advantage to choose your own surface any more, because everybody can play on all the surfaces."
While Federer insisted that regaining the world No 1 ranking was not uppermost in his thoughts, he admitted that it was a long-term goal. "It doesn't drive me on a daily basis, but I feel like if I play really well from here till the US Open obviously there is a shot," he said. "I'm aware that I'm not the only one, but I feel like I'm on a good run right now. I've won a lot of tournaments in a short period of time, which gives me a lot of confidence. But the focus now is trying to play well day by day and make sure I get through a tough stretch.
"It would be great to have that record, but my life's very much OK without it too. Pete's a good friend of mine. He was an amazing champion for our game and I don't need to break every record he has. I came so close and I could have chased it if I had really wanted to. I did not choose to. I'm a believer that if I do things the right way it will come back."
Federer traces the turn-around in his fortunes back to last year's French Open, when he became the first player to beat Djokovic in 2011 before losing to Nadal in the final. "People aren't giving me enough credit sometimes for how great that tournament was because I didn't win it," he said. "Same thing at Wimbledon. I thought I played really well there, too. I was really in a good position to do something extraordinary there as well. Same thing happened at the US Open. So it was a tough spell for me, and it was important to stay calm and keep on working hard and maybe take minor adjustments and hopefully luck will turn."
Restoring faith in the aggressive style that has brought him so much success has been a factor, while his serve is arguably more effective than ever. Federer gave credit to Sampras' former coach, Paul Annacone, who joined his entourage 18 months ago, though he was reluctant to go into details.
"It's been going really well," Federer said. "I'm happy with how we've been working. I don't talk much about what we work on and what we're trying to improve. Other players choose to do that and then obviously there's a lot of big talk about that. But I feel like my game is going in the right direction."
Despite his resurgence, it is more than two years since Federer added to his tally of 16 Grand Slam titles. "Obviously it's a big priority for me, playing well at the majors, but it's not everything," he said. "I always have to keep reminding people that I do play 20 tournaments in the year, not just four."
Federer also said that winning a first Olympic singles title at Wimbledon this summer would not necessarily outdo anything else he might achieve this year. "It depends how the weeks go by," he said. "What if you win seven five-setters in one Grand Slam? That's got to beat any other tournament you play."
Nevertheless, he added: "I'd love an Olympic gold. Everyone knows that. I've had amazing experiences at all three Olympics I've played. This is a big one. I'm happy that it happens in our lifetime to be honest and for me, as a player, I'm still in my prime to actually have a shot not only to play it, but to do well."
Besides, Federer is not ruling out a fifth Olympic challenge in 2016 given his current form and fitness. "Some people don't understand how you can play tennis at 30 years old, which is shocking to me, because normally that's when you're still young enough to play some of your best tennis," he said. "I think I've been showing that since I turned 30 in August last year. That's basically where my run began."
Roger and out
Current world rankings
1 N Djokovic 12,670pts
2 R Nadal 10,175
3 R Federer 9,350
4 A Murray 7,450
World rankings based on points won since end of August 2011
1 Federer 6,530
2 Djokovic 5,100
3 Murray 3,930
4 Nadal 3,440
Federer's tournaments since the 2011 US Open
Basle: won (beat Nishikori in final)
Paris Masters: won (beat Tsonga in final)
World Tour Finals (London): won (beat Tsonga in final)
Doha: withdrew injured after reaching semi-finals
Australian Open: lost to Nadal in semi-finals
Rotterdam: won (beat Del Potro in final)
Dubai: won (beat Murray in final)
Indian Wells Masters: won (beat Isner in final)