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There's No Painting Him in One Corner

Federer, whose backhand is like brushwork, isn't buying into No. 1 hype or the need to have a coach.

March 13, 2004|Lisa Dillman | Times Staff Writer

The passing shot launched by his practice partner and Swiss Davis Cup teammate whizzed perilously close to his face, but Roger Federer didn't take umbrage the other day during their hitting session at the La Quinta Club and Resort.

"I'll remember," he told Yves Allegro, delivering a playful warning.

Of course, no one needs to tell the reigning Wimbledon and Australian Open champion not to have a cow.

He has one.

The famous Juliette has become part of the rich Federer lore, right along with his aesthetically pleasing one-handed backhand. She was given to him by organizers of the Swiss Open in Gstaad just after he'd won at Wimbledon and, quite frankly, people are intrigued by the cow. Federer, in his charming manner, enjoys discussing Juliette.

"I think it's a great story," said Federer, who is here for the Pacific Life Open at Indian Wells. "It was such a great surprise. People like animals. I'm a Swiss. We have the most beautiful cows in the world. I have two cows now because she had a baby."

Federer is still considering names for the calf -- and making the most of Juliette.

"I went up to Gstaad and got some milk and cheese from her and had a fondue," he said of his recent visit. "When I saw her, she was there, all big and tired.... It's strange because I'm so happy to see her, but she ... "

She is ... well, a cow, and not the least impressed by two Slam victories and his No. 1 ranking.

Federer, though, who has won 21 of his last 22 matches and is 16-1 in 2004, has noticed a significant change since he became No. 1 at the Australian Open.

People have shifted their assessments of him.

"When I play, if I'm playing good, they think I'm playing great," he said. "If I'm playing bad, it's not that bad. Because you're No 1 in the world, it always looks good. But that's not how it is."

Winning has a way of covering faults, and Federer is not alone in noticing that.

"It's funny, the more matches I win, the better-looking I get," said U.S. Open champion Andy Roddick, smiling.

With Roddick, 21, and Federer, 22, combining to win the last three Slams, the temptation is to reduce the competitive balance on the tour to a two-man show.

They are in opposite halves of the draw at this tournament, with Federer seeded first and Roddick third, and both are scheduled to play their first matches Sunday.

"It's not a two-man race at this point," said Roddick, who is 1-5 against Federer. "I think Roger's established himself as the top player by going through and winning in Australia. But I think there are too many other players to make it just a two- or three-man race."

Former U.S. Open and Wimbledon champion Lleyton Hewitt of Australia said Federer was not that far ahead of the pack, but Andre Agassi noted that Federer had won two of the four Slam tournaments.

Said Roddick: "Roger's always had the game. He's always had the shots, always been able to do everything on the court. I think he's just maybe tightened it up. You don't see him having those weird second-round, third-round losses that you can't really explain."

It all came together at Wimbledon, where he did not lose serve in his final two matches. Federer sobbed during the trophy presentation and joked about it the other day.

"A lot of crying in the papers," he said.

The tears did not flow after the Australian Open, though he achieved a modern-day rarity by winning without a coach. Federer, who split with Peter Lundgren in December, is operating fine without one and has no immediate plans to fill the position.

"If I'm in the mood to hit five hours, I'm going to go hit five," Federer said. "If I'm only in the mood for half an hour, I only go half an hour. I know what I need and what I don't need. That is something I've improved in the last few years. That's what made me No. 1."

Federer remains equally pragmatic about his goals.

"I'm not a guy who is going to go chasing [Grand Slams]," he said. "That's not how I look at things. For me, it's about titles and it's about keeping my ranking."

It's hard to believe the collected Federer had a temper on the court as a youngster.

"He didn't like to lose," said his mother Lynette in a telephone interview from her native South Africa. "He'd disappear into the cloakroom and cry. We'd try to calm him down and tell him it's not the end of the world. If you don't like to lose, do something about it and improve."

She said he was fond of setting limits as a child, whether it was with a teacher, a coach or teasing his older sister.

"Still do," he said.

"It could drive people crazy," Lynette said. "He had such endurance. It was a game he could play."

And it has been better than almost anyone else's of late. Which is why the man for all surfaces finds himself fielding questions about the most improbable feat, a calendar Grand Slam.

"People ask me because I'm the only one who has a chance [this year]," Federer said. "I think it's almost impossible. Obviously, it's possible, but the field of men's game is so open. Winning one slam is an unbelievable effort in these times.

"I set myself more realistic goals. About this, I could speak if I won three and I'm in the quarters of the fourth. Then I can start thinking, 'I've got a chance.' So far away. So many hours of tennis."

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