No. 2 Federer shows he counts

Roger Federer exists in a room like royalty. He doesn't act it. You feel it.

He is a regular guy who really can't be one. The handshake is firm, eye contact direct. His smile says he is happy to do this, to spend this interview time with you. The reality is that he'd rather be a thousand other places.

The world of tennis hasn't seen him publicly since he crumbled in the fifth set of the Australian Open final and fought back a flood of tears. Unsuccessfully.

Now, he is here, in Indian Wells, getting back on the horse that threw him, and doing so with a combination of confidence and humility we have always found irresistible. The men's draw begins today, and Federer will probably start Saturday.

For three years, starting in 2004, this tournament was his personal playground. In those three years, as well as 2007, almost every tournament was. He didn't just dominate. He ruled.

In 2004-07, he won 11 of the possible 16 major titles. Until Aug. 18 of last year, Federer had been the No. 1 men's player in the world. That covered a record 237 weeks.

Maybe one of the first signs of the crown tilting a bit came at this tournament in 2007, then the Pacific Life Classic and now the BNP Paribas Open. He lost in the second round to a journeyman, Guillermo Canas, and lost to Canas again in the next event in Miami.

Then, last year, he was chased out in 63 minutes and straight sets in the semifinals by Mardy Fish.

"I remember thinking, this is going pretty fast," Fish says now, "and thinking, hey, this was Roger Federer, and wishing afterward that it had lasted longer so I could savor it more."

Federer is an accomplished artist whose tools happen to be a racket and strings. He also is an accomplished spokesman for the sport, a pro athlete who has resisted the temptation to badmouth or downplay the achievements of the new man on the throne, Rafael Nadal.

"Yes, I like Rafa, we get along well," Federer says. "He is having the time of his life right now. I had a great run, but for the moment, he is the best in the world."

There is always that "for the moment" phrase. Tennis ought to be thrilled. Avis hasn't quit trying to be Hertz. The most famous No. 2 since Sarah Palin still has designs on No. 1.

When Nadal beat him in the Australian final, the Spaniard took his head-to-head record with Federer to an unthinkable 13-6 overall and five straight. Federer says of that match: "The next day, I was motivated to play him again."

Federer's next shot at a major will be on the clay at Roland Garros in Paris, where Nadal has won the last four and where Federer is perceived to be the least effective. Federer addresses that with humility and humor.

"I don't have a problem on clay," he says. "I have a Rafa problem on clay."

The Australian is six weeks in the past, the French 10 weeks in the future.

That made Indian Wells the perfect desert oasis to talk about things not usually on the interview list. Kind of People magazine meets Sports Illustrated.

The 27-year-old Federer says his only sibling, sister Diana, 20 months his elder, is a nurse in Switzerland, has a nice boyfriend and never played much tennis.

"She was good at ground hockey and volleyball," he says, nodding and smiling at the possibility that she might have been a better athlete than he, given the chance.

He says his calm demeanor on the court dates back to a time when his parents advised him, then a teenage racket-thrower, that he'd get more out of his game if he didn't get so emotional about every point.

"I still think, even being like that, I could have had a pretty good career," he says. "But they looked at what was best in the long run, and parents are usually right."

The man who has met presidents, kings and diplomats went quickly from Tiger Woods to an even bigger name when asked who was most impressive on his list of elbow-rubbing with dignitaries.

"You shake hands with him," Federer says, "and you sit there later and you think, 'Oh, my God, the pope.' The night before, you sit there and think, 'What do I wear? What is appropriate?' "

Years ago, Federer started a foundation that gets children into school in South Africa and keeps them there. He remembers his visit a few years ago.

"To see them happy as they are, I remember that," he says. "They were in a place with friends. They were part of something. Some people think kids just need toys to be happy. They need so much more."

And he talked about a tennis afterlife.

"Five years ago, had you asked about that," he says, "I would have told you about how I was No. 1 and was still winning Slams. I would have been defensive. Now, that is a fair question.

"This is a transition time in my life. I'm still competitive, still trying to win Slams, but I think about what comes next. It might be the foundation, it might be something with one of my longtime sponsors. I hope it is something still connected to tennis. That's been my life."

Even for royalty, there is a twilight. Federer hopes his isn't quite here yet.




BNP Paribas Open featured matches

Second day of main draw.


(First match 11 a.m.)

Vince Spadea vs. Igor Kunitsyn, Russia.

Mariya Koryttseva, Ukraine, vs. Sania Mirza, India.

Lleyton Hewitt, Australia, vs. Jan Hernych, Czech Republic.

Maria Sharapova, Russia-Elena Vesnina, Russia, vs. Ekaterina Makarova, Russia-Tatiana Poutchek, Belarus

(First match 7 p.m.)

Bethanie Mattek-Sands vs. Tathiana Garbin, Italy.

Ivan Ljubicic, Croatia, vs. Kei Nishikori, Japan.



(First match 11 a.m.)

Feliciana Lopez, Spain, vs. Michael Llodra, France (third match).

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