The tennis reign of Spain’s Carlos Moya was short but memorable

The tennis career of Carlos Moya will end with grace and dignity, reflecting the man himself.

That end may not come for a year or two. But he is 33, is six months from becoming a father for the first time, and is clearly in the twilight of a career that, for the better part of 15 years, was all sunshine.

He is in Indian Wells to play in the BNP Paribas Open this week and next, and it is the perfect place for him to begin the end.

“I love it here,” he says. “The memories . . .”

It was 11 years ago in this tournament, March 15, 1999, that the Spaniard with movie-star looks and world-class game became the No. 1 men’s player in the world. He won a semifinal against Gustavo Kuerten, and the points that came with that made him No. 1. Tournament organizers brought a cake onto the court, and the celebration began.

“I knew at the start of the tournament I had a chance,” Moya says. “Four of us did. Me, Pete Sampras, Pat Rafter and Alex Corretja. They all lost their first match and I had a lot of pressure from then on. I knew if I got to the final, I would be No. 1.”

He had never beaten Kuerten, a three-time French Open champion, and he remembers his battle with nerves in the last game.

“I was telling myself this was going to happen, if I can serve it out,” he says. “Then there was just relief after match point.”

He lost to Mark Philippoussis in the final but still had a chance to stay No. 1 for at least another month. All he had to do was beat Sebastien Grosjean in the round of 16 at the next tournament in Miami.

“I had two or three match points, but he won,” Moya says.

Still, as it should be, his two-week reign at the top of men’s tennis remains a huge source of pride. He was the first Spaniard to do it. Not 1975 U.S. Open champion Manual Orantes, not two-time French champion Sergi Bruguera, not two-time French finalist Corretja.

Moya says that many more players have won Grand Slam tournaments (he won the ’98 French) and have helped win Davis Cups for their country (he won the title point by beating Andy Roddick and the United States in 2004), than have been No. 1.

And he’s correct. Since the rankings began and Ilie Nastase became No. 1 on Aug. 23, 1973, only 24 men have held the top spot.

Right now, Moya’s ranking is No. 639. He has played in four tournaments this year and won one match. He is in the main draw here because he asked for a wild card and was quickly granted one.

The men who run this tournament, Charlie Pasarell, Ray Moore and Steve Simon, ran it in ’99 too, and had an easy wild-card choice with Moya. Nostalgia alone was enough. Moya’s victory was in the last year of competition at the Hyatt Grand Champions stadium, which was about a mile from the current Taj Mahal of the desert, the 16,100-seat Indian Wells Garden.

Moya could end up being the only male singles player in this year’s main draw who competed in that stadium in ’99. Vince Spadea is attempting to qualify and Xavier Malisse is third on a waiting list to get in.

Moya was still hovering around No. 40 at this time last year, when he decided he could no longer take the pain in his right big toe. He took two months off and realized it wasn’t going to heal that way, especially since he had also hurt his right leg by favoring the toe during matches. He decided on surgery that involved scraping bone fragments and repairing other damaged bones in his foot.

“The surgery didn’t go well,” Moya says. “Then, I gained weight.”

So a real comeback hasn’t been feasible until about now. Actually, any comeback attempt by Moya raises questions, especially since his toe injury kept him from doing only one thing in life. Playing tennis.

Why even bother?

“It wouldn’t end right for me this way, if I just stopped,” Moya says. “Maybe it won’t work, but I want to try. I love tennis. When I wasn’t playing, I was watching on TV and constantly checking tournament scores. I don’t understand people who were once involved and then walk away, don’t even stay involved.”

He understands the odds, understands that he will now play opponents 10 to 12 years younger, all of whom hit the ball much harder. He says he hopes to win by countering their limber bodies with his veteran head.

He has made more than $13 million in prize money, was ranked in the top 50 for 13 straight years, 1996-2008, and is one of only four active players with more than 500 ATP Tour victories. Roger Federer, Roddick and Lleyton Hewitt are the others.

He knows he has nothing to prove, but still wants to. He says a couple of wins here would be the boost he needs.

As he embarks, the fond memories of the desert of Southern California will include his mother’s chicken soup.

“I’ll always remember,” he says. “Getting that No. 1 meant so much.”