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A little change will go a long way for Fed

PARIS -- As he politely tapped his red Wilson racket to acknowledge the standing ovation of the Roland Garros crowd on Thursday, Roger Federer wore a look somewhere between self-loathing and utter contempt.

He had just played a troubling second-round match, lasting nearly 3½ hours, against Jose Acasuso, the erratic Argentine, and been lucky to escape with a 7-6 (8), 5-7, 7-6 (2), 6-2 victory that was even closer than the score suggests, if that is possible.

"Could have won first three sets, could have lost them also," Federer said afterward. "Of course, I'm thrilled to be through. It was sort of a fun match to be part of, with so many ups and downs."

It was, in a sense, a microcosm of Federer's last 15 months. Since his straight-sets loss to Novak Djokovic in the semifinals of the Australian Open, he has been a marked man. Each tournament has presented the opportunity for pundits to pontificate on the state of his supposedly fragile psyche.

At times, these investigations have descended into hysteria. Indeed, some of the dispatches have read like obituaries. There was his humiliation in the French final when he won only four games against Rafael Nadal, then his loss in a glorious final at Wimbledon and the inevitable loss of his No. 1 ranking. Back in March, some saw Federer's infamous racket-smash in Miami -- a three-second echo of his angry junior days -- as the definitive sign that he had completely lost his mind.

Well, in the interest of equal time, let's review the state of Federer's game:

• He is the reigning U.S. Open champion and has reached 19 consecutive Grand Slam semifinals, nearly double the previous record of Rod Laver and Ivan Lendl (each managed 10).

• He remains the No. 2-ranked player in the world.

• He is coming off a straight-sets victory over Nadal in the Madrid final and is trying to reach the final here for the fourth straight year.

"I had problems in my back in February, so I missed Davis Cup," Federer said here last week. "I got married, so I didn't have much time to prepare for Monte Carlo. But then, between Monte Carlo and Rome, and Rome and Madrid, I practiced a lot. I trained a lot. I worked on my regularity, on my placement, and I had the feeling I was a bit slow on some of my shots.

"So I wanted to be more regular, to be able to do that for hours and hours. I worked a lot, and it paid of in Madrid. I was a bit surprised to see it paying off that quickly. I'm happy everything worked out well. Everything is OK to start this big tournament."

It is a marvelous achievement to reach three consecutive finals at Roland Garros, but when you are Federer it is not enough. He has been the world's second-best clay-court player, but so far Nadal has prevented him from winning a personal Grand Slam.

How does Federer change that? By changing. Those who have worked with him say it isn't easy to adjust a champion's mindset, particularly when there are 13 Grand Slam singles titles on the résumé.

"When you've won so many Grand Slams for so many years, small changes -- it feels like drastic changes," said ESPN analyst Darren Cahill. "It takes time. You can't just snap your fingers and do all the things all these people are telling you to do."

Cahill has some insight into Federer's struggle. He spent nine days working with him in Dubai as the two discussed a coaching arrangement. Ultimately, Cahill -- who has two young children and lives in Las Vegas -- opted to take a less-invasive job as an adidas consultant. Still, he sees signs that Federer is more flexible in his game plans.

One thing that gets lost, Cahill said, is that Federer actually has a full-time coach. He is Severin Luthi, the Swiss Davis Cup captain, and he worked with Federer for 35 weeks last year.

Ivan Lendl, the three-time French Open champion, said there is one solution:

"Winning breeds confidence, and he's not winning as much as he has in the past," Lendl said. "The guys are less afraid of you. I certainly cannot speak for Roger, but no matter who you are, everybody needs confidence."

The need to evolve

Jose Higueras was Federer's coach through last year's clay-court season that ended badly in Paris.

He was asked recently if the very thing that makes Federer the great champion he is -- stubbornness -- prevented him from modifying his game to deal with the younger players who are starting to beat him.

"You can say that," said Higueras, after a long pause. "The thing I stressed with him -- we keep in touch still -- you have to get better, with everybody else. There's not that much that can be better. But I feel if he gets back maybe 3, 4 percent, that's a big difference, maybe the difference between three or four more Grand Slams.

"Roger, if you saw him play three years ago, he was the best player in the world. He didn't like much change in anything."

Higueras paused again.

"As champions get older, "he said, "they need to evolve. Rafa -- he's still getting better. At the same time, if he doesn't keep evolving, people will catch him from behind."

A year after Higueras tried to convince Federer to be more aggressive on clay -- to take bigger swings at second serves, make the occasional journey to net, try some drop shots for a change of pace and hit his forehand harder and deeper (in short, cast his lot with more risk and greater reward) -- he did just that in Madrid.

Sure, Nadal was spent after a four-hour-plus match with Djokovic, but Federer showed signs that he is making those subtle changes.

"That first-round match [in the French Open, against Alberto Martin], he was working on his drop shots, trying some things," Cahill said. "It was a practice match for the rest of the tournament."

The second round was far more difficult. Acasuso actually had a 6-3 lead in the first-set tiebreaker and squandered four set points before Federer won the final point with a serve outside and a delicate drop shot. After losing the second set, Federer fell behind 5-1 in the third.

Was he worried?

"Yes, a bit," Federer said. "But I was not afraid to die, so everything was OK."

Sure enough, Federer saved another set point and rallied to force another tiebreaker, which seemed to break Acasuso's spirit. Federer won that breaker easily and took six of the last seven games in the final set.

"I'm happy to have come through such a tough match," he said. "I'm excited about the next match, that's for sure."

If the draw progresses as expected -- although, suddenly, the prospect of meeting Frenchmen Paul-Henri Mathieu or Jeremy Chardy in the next few rounds feels vaguely uncomfortable -- Federer would meet Novak Djokovic in the semifinals. After pushing Nadal to the very brink in Madrid, Djokovic has been anointed as the man most likely to beat Nadal. Federer aches to change that perception.

Much has been made of Federer's spasm of temper in Miami, but Cahill saw it as a positive thing, a back-to-the-future message.

"That sent him back to his junior days," Cahill said. "It showed he cares. The young Roger wanted to show the world he could be one of the best players in the world. He wants to do that again.

"I think he's got his spark back."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.