Fed not ready for rubber chicken circuit

PARIS -- Roger Federer was late for dinner Tuesday night. The crowd in the posh banquet hall had already started the second course by the time he arrived, but as he wound his way through the maze of round tables where people were digging into their duck breast, everyone put down their forks, stood up and applauded.

Federer mounted the stage looking slightly sheepish in his suit and tie, and said it was no big deal. He reminisced about the first time he had been invited to the International Tennis Federation's Champions Dinner as a junior player in 1998, when he had to travel from a lower-level tournament in Surbiton, England. "This was a five-minute car ride away," he said.

The logistics may have been easy, but the situation was not, which is why Federer's appearance was met with surprise and deep appreciation. Just a few hours before, he had been blown out of the French Open quarterfinals by the whiplashing groundstrokes of Sweden's Robin Soderling, who mushed relentlessly toward the finish line like a muscular, blue-eyed sled dog straining at the harness in the Iditarod.

By the time Federer got through doping control and his trilingual news conference, the evening program had begun. He sent his parents ahead to tell the emcee that there was "absolutely" no question he would show up.

In one of those ironic and unplanned intersections of sports history, the night's guest of honor was three-time Roland Garros champion Gustavo Kuerten of Brazil, the last man to have derailed Federer before the semifinals of a Grand Slam, back in 2004. Kuerten was clearly moved at Federer's presence and choked up as he received the Philippe Chatrier Award.

As the two slim, smiling men posed for pictures together, looking like tousled-haired brothers from different continents, it was hard not to wonder if this was the start of a career phase in which Federer will be attending as many awards dinners as trophy ceremonies. He referred to the prospect himself -- then immediately shot it down.

"I get standing ovations from people thinking they'll never see me again," Federer said, then added, "I don't know if I've ever enjoyed tennis more. … I had to tell the press something, so I said I'd play through the 2012 Olympics. I want to play more if my body allows it."

Federer's loss ended his streak of semifinals appearances in majors and could cost him his No. 1 ranking if prohibitive favorite Rafael Nadal wins the French. But ESPN analyst Patrick McEnroe said it's not necessarily a bellwether of anything more significant.

"I don't see this in any way as the beginning of the end," McEnroe said Wednesday, sipping coffee in the bar near the television booths at Chatrier Stadium. "Is he going to be the dead-solid favorite at every tournament? No. He's certainly more vulnerable. But he still won two majors last year. He [has] won one this year. He has two more to go, which are his two best."

Soderling took Federer out in the gathering gloom of a dark, wet afternoon with the same kind of power game wielded by Juan Martin del Potro of Argentina in the U.S. Open final. It's not as if Federer rolled over -- McEnroe said Federer tried to respond tactically and simply got outplayed. Federer went for big second serves whenever he could, but the heavier conditions prevented him from taking full advantage of his patented slices, kicks and spin, while simultaneously giving Soderling more time to tee up.

McEnroe considers Federer the favorite at Wimbledon: "I think he'll be more motivated. It must be weird for him -- first time ever, he's got a few days to practice on the grass before Halle [a tune-up event in Germany]. He's really good about shaking off losses. He doesn't let those things stay with him that long. He's a great adapter and a great adjuster. Rarely does he lose to the same player repeatedly, except for Rafa on clay."

Federer got to sit down in time to have dessert Tuesday night. He'll have to wait until next year to try to put icing on the cake, in the form of beating Nadal in the final here. In the meantime, you can only admire the fact that he took the time to give the rest of the dinner guests a sweet moment.