INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — Roger Federer could have been upset about losing a close final in one of the biggest events outside the Grand Slam tournaments.
But the blow of a three-set loss to Novak Djokovic in the BNP Paribas Open on Sunday was softened by knowing how far he had come since injuring his back a year ago at Indian Wells.
Last spring, Federer took a seven-week break. After Wimbledon, he re-injured his back and found himself questioning everything, leading to an uneven year for someone who once ruled this sport.
“I had some doubts at certain times,” he said. “But, overall, I knew that it can’t be that I will feel this way forever, so it was just important to stay patient and wait. That’s the most difficult thing to do. I haven’t had it very often in my career. That’s why it was somewhat new for me.”
The chatter grew that Federer's game had fallen. Some suggested he consider retirement. He heard the noise but didn't listen.
"A few weeks ago, months ago, a few people said I couldn't play tennis anymore," he said. "But at the same time, that fire, wanting to win, is important, and right now I have that. I think have a really good balance right now."
Despite being denied a record fifth title at Indian Wells, Federer is 19-3 this year, his best start since opening the season with a 23-2 mark two years ago. He's 4-2 against top 10 opponents, the most wins of any player this year.
He moved up three spots to No. 5 in Monday's rankings. That's the closest he's been to the top four since last June, when he was third.
Federer won his first title of the year two weeks ago in Dubai, beating Djokovic in a three-set semifinal. He was a finalist in Brisbane and lost in the semifinals at the Australian Open.
"I'm just happy I'm playing consistent tennis and I'm going deep in tournaments and I'm giving myself chances to win," he said. "I'm playing really good tennis. I'm moving well. Serving well, consistently well. So many things are working."
Federer heads to Miami this week for the Sony Open, which he skipped last year because of his back.
"I'm just surprised that I'm able to keep it up week for week now," he said. "I expected myself to have a breakthrough tournament, but then maybe a couple of early exits. Who knows, maybe that's all upon me, I don't know. But I got very, very close, so it's encouraging for Miami and for the rest of the season."
Federer's rivals have noticed a recharged Roger.
"He has more depth on his shots, especially from the backhand side. He's opening with his backhand shot down the line," Djokovic said. "He gives himself an opportunity to finish with the forehand. He serves well. He just played better than he did in the last 13, 14 months."