Life on the outside for Federer

PARIS -- One minute past 11 a.m., Roger Federer, blinking, stepped into the bright light on Court Suzanne Lenglen. It was an undignified hour and venue -- some would go so far as to call it an insult -- for a 16-time Grand slam singles champion.

Although Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, the two men who have surpassed him at the top of men's tennis, played their early matches on the grand stage of Court Philippe Chatrier, Federer finds himself the odd man out at this year's French Open.

Yes, for the very first time in more than seven seasons, Roger Federer is not the leading man at a major event.

Oddly enough, he seems OK with this. Secretly, he might actually enjoy it. He is whistling along under the radar, just out of range of the brutal scrutiny a world No. 1 invites. Less than three months from his 30th birthday, he's still the third-best player on the planet. Still, the obituaries have been circulating for about a year now.

"There is nothing to panic about," he said a few weeks ago after losing in the third round at Rome. "I will be fine."

His coach, Paul Annacone, readily seconds this notion. Annacone, who has been working with Federer for 10 months now, understands the aging process of an elite athlete. Annacone, Pete Sampras' longtime coach, returned for a second tour of duty and helped him win the last of his 14 majors, the 2002 U.S. Open -- at the age of 31.

"Obviously, Novak has something really special going right now, and Rafa's Rafa," Annacone said Wednesday, standing in the bustling players' lounge. "So, if the conversation is about those guys, mostly, Roger's got great perspective and he's secure with what he's done. He's happy not to be talking about himself so much.

"It's fine with him. He can just go about his business and play."

Eight years ago, Federer lost to Peruvian Luis Horna in the first round here at Roland Garros -- in straight sets. He recovered rather nicely, winning 16 of the next 27 majors, including a streak of 23 consecutive semifinals, a record that will likely never be approached.

Since winning last year's Australian Open, however, Federer has failed to reach the final in any of the past four Grand Slam events. Because he is in the bottom half of the draw with Djokovic, most here believe he will fall short again.

"In the French Open, I never was the top favorite," Federer said before the tournament. "It's true I didn't have as much pressure here than in other tournaments, but this year I have even less pressure because Rafa wants to keep his title; Novak wants to win it. So they have more pressure than me maybe, compared with my last six, seven years here."

Which, in the mind of Federer, is a good thing. Now that his new position in the tennis hierarchy has been established, he may begin to play with more freedom.

On Tuesday, he seemed a bit irritated, perhaps more with himself than his circumstance. He was playing a 22-year-old French wild card, who was playing only his second ATP World Tour-level match. Although Federer has amassed more than $60 million in winnings, Maxime Teixeira has collected all of $57,000 -- $21,000 of that from his breakthrough first-round match.

Twenty-five minutes into the match, the kid was still on serve, artfully moving Federer from side to side, killing him with drops shots. With Teixeira serving at 3-4, Federer had seen quite enough. He broke Teixeira with a few exquisite shots, then served out the set, beginning with this: a wickedly sliced drop-shot, whisper-quiet off the racket, that curved down over the net, landed a few inches inside the line, then bounced more than a foot sideways into the doubles alley, away from the charging Teixeira.

Federer, who took 15 of the last 17 games, easily won the match, 6-3, 6-0, 6-2. It took all of 84 minutes. Afterward, Teixeira was asked about his opponent in a postmatch press conference. No news was broken.
"I think that he's really strong," Teixeira said in French. "He's going to win a few Grand Slams. He's got many matches to win. I was doing my best. But it's not [easy] to forget that he's one of the best players, you know, one of the best players ever.

"It's difficult not to think about this."

Federer, the Swiss Army knife of tennis technicians, remains a joy to watch.

Four minutes into the match, after Teixeira received his first (but not last) rallying, sympathy clap, he hit a pretty good-looking drop-shot. Federer raced in and then paused, and you could almost see him considering his numerous options. He elected to play the high, looping crosscourt backhand, very deep. Teixeira barely got a racket on it and was a broken man.

"It was OK," Federer said. "I could vary my shots. I had the choice. I could play in different ways today. I had the choice, and that was the difficulty, to choose the best game today."

At this point, it seems, Federer almost creates small crises for himself to maintain his interest. In his interviews, as always, he is frank, sometimes to the point of perceived arrogance.

"I don't have a Grand Slam in my pocket," Federer said in Rome, "but if I win one it changes everything. These guys are playing better than me and other players. Novak has won a lot of tournaments, like Rafa, but I'm getting closer."

From anyone else, this might sound like false bravado, but it happens to be the truth. Federer probably knows that his cherished 2009 title, which completed a career Grand Slam, will stand as his only triumph here. In fact, he said, he's having a full-sized replica of the Coupe Des Mousquetaires made, "no matter the price," because the version he was given was too small.

Translation: A champion always thinks big.

"When you've won as much as he has," Annacone said, "you don't worry that much. If you look at his losses this year, the guys that beat him played really well. His record is pretty damn good. So I don't think he's feeling any urgency at all."

Does Federer think he can win this tournament?

"Absolutely," Annacone said. "If he didn't, then I would be really disappointed. I don't know how you can have 16 Grand Slam titles and have his record and feel like you can't win any tournament. Right now, he's happy and healthy and playing at a good level.

"He'll take that."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.