Ho-hum Federer still playing for history

NEW YORK -- When Roger Federer plays tennis, there is always a chance you will see something extraordinary.

There was such a moment Tuesday in his first-round match against Czech-born Ivo Minar.

In the fifth game of the second set, Federer was floating along, 3 feet behind the baseline, when Minar hit a scorching cross-court forehand that seemed to surprise him. Federer accelerated to his right, with swift and precise steps, and -- with the ball behind him -- flicked his wrist, almost violently.

That he even got his racket on the ball was a minor triumph, but his sliced shot managed to clear the net by a few inches and drop neatly inside the line. The crowd, merely polite to this point, gasped. That the shot didn't count -- Minar's ball was called out -- hardly seemed to matter.

Federer, the world No. 1 player for 83 consecutive weeks now, never seems out of sorts. In fact, there are times when the sublime Swiss player seems genuinely bored, unchallenged by the Ivo Minar or Takao Suzuki on the other side of the net. There are moments when you cannot help but wonder if he deliberately hits tantalizingly returnable shots -- just to see if his opponent can do enough to force an astonishing reply.

The sweat which began to darken the back of Federer's cobalt blue shirt in the third set was the only visible sign of stress in a 6-1, 6-1, 6-1 victory over Minar. In a bit of Zen symmetry, the match required only 61 minutes.

Federer has said he fears no other player in the game. Afterward, he was asked if he was as confident as he's ever been.

"Yeah," Federer said with a matter-of-factness that drew a laugh from the assembled reporters. "I mean, I don't see it as rough anymore. When I lose to a player, for me, as long as I give it 100 percent, that's all I can do. If the guy's better on the day, that's OK, and I'll try next time.

"In the past, maybe years ago, I would lose and say, 'Oh, no.' I didn't feel like I gave it all I had. Then I started to really not like to play against a guy. But now I see more the challenge in it. Now because I've beaten all the guys maybe I've had bad records against, that eliminates the fear factor."

Federer is a genuine throwback. Amid the thrash and strum of the men's power game, he is an oasis of artistry. He is Greg Maddux -- seamlessly changing speeds and locations -- but with a 98 mph fastball.

Frankly, it's getting a little ridiculous.

Federer has now won 19 straight matches overall and 29 straight on hard courts. His last loss on the surface was to Marat Safin in the Australian Open semifinals -- it was 9-7 in the fifth set -- and that was eight months ago. His hard-court record for the season: 38-1. This explains why, with all due respect to Rafael Nadal and Andy Roddick, he is the overwhelming favorite here. That, and his 139-9 record over the last two seasons.

Federer won three of the four Grand Slams in 2004; only a third-round loss to Gustavo Kuerten at Roland Garros prevented him from winning the natural Slam.

Although this year has been relatively disappointing because he failed to win the first two Grand Slams, he has a chance to do something no one has ever done in the 37 years of the Open Era. A win here would give him the unprecedented double of back-to-back Wimbledon and U.S. Open titles. Laver, Connors, Borg or Sampras never did that.

Pity Minar, if you can find it in your heart. He has now played three Grand Slam singles matches -- two of them were against the world's No. 1 player.

When Svetlana Kuznetsova, the women's defending champion, lost in the first round Monday, Federer thought to himself, "OK. I better not mess this up, too," he said.

And the fact that Federer, who plays most of his matches in prime time, was playing the first match at 11 a.m., didn't make him any more civil.

Federer was more efficient than usual, which, of course, is saying something (he made 10 unforced errors). When Federer actually misses a shot -- say, a rare mis-hit off the frame -- he shakes his head, almost involuntarily, as though he's surprised.

There were only a few dramatic moments in the match. Federer sat spellbound between the second and third sets when an Andre Agassi career montage ran on the electronic screen at Arthur Ashe Stadium. When it started spitting rain early in the third set, Federer asked chair umpire Norm Chryst if he might consider a delay. Chryst, after scuffing his sneakers on the lines, declined. Later, during a changeover in the third set, Federer, along with the ball boys, became engrossed in the animated big-screen race between three tennis balls, flying over the five boroughs. He seemed happy when the gold ball, after a slow start, was the winner.

Federer, unlike most players, does not employ a coach. Tony Roche is a consultant, but Federer said he hasn't talked to him in three weeks. Why does he have a different philosophy?

"Hmmm," said Federer, a smile creeping onto his face. "I have a different ranking."

Somehow, he said it without sounding arrogant.

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.