- Kamakshi Tandon
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Roger Federer returned to work quickly after getting married to longtime girlfriend Mirka Vavrinec just over a week ago, forgoing a honeymoon to play the Rolex Masters in Monte Carlo a couple of days later.
Before playing his first match, Federer explained that he had originally omitted the tournament from his schedule "in case I got married or something." As it turns out, he squeezed in both by taking a wild card into the event, saying that the new Mrs. Federer was "completely relaxed" about his decision.
Still, why the need for a working vacation? With Rafael Nadal looming larger on clay than ever and Federer assimilating all the recent changes in his life off court, the deposed king should get a grace period where he's under no pressure to do anything memorable.
Actually, Federer is on a tight budget these days, rankings-wise. The world No. 2 is under threat from the rising Andy Murray, who could grab the second spot over the next four weeks if he outperforms Federer in the two upcoming Masters events in Rome and Madrid.
Given the state of affairs in men's tennis right now, dropping to No. 3 could have significant seeding consequences for Federer at the French Open -- the prospect of being drawn to meet the top-seeded Nadal in the semifinals rather than the final. (Nadal's No. 1 spot is under no threat from anyone.)
Nominally, Federer currently holds a substantial rankings lead over Murray, but his real lead is much slimmer because it includes all his strong results on the clay last year, which will drop off over the coming weeks.
Last year, Federer reached the finals of Monte Carlo and the former Masters event in Hamburg before going on to do the same at the French Open. Murray, meanwhile, did not get past the fourth round at any of his clay warm-ups, and lost in the third round of the French Open.
With Murray scheduled to play all three of this year's Masters events in Monte Carlo, Rome and Madrid, Federer would have given him a substantial head start if he had skipped Monte Carlo.
Especially since Murray too has done the math.
"If you got rid of the clay-court season's points, I think I would be very close to Roger, and not too far behind Rafa," said the canny 21-year-old after winning the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami, before Federer changed his mind and decided to play Monte Carlo. "There's only two mandatory tournaments this year before the French [Rome and Madrid]. I'm planning on playing Monte Carlo, and I can use that."
Indeed he did. While Federer went out to Stanislas Wawrinka in the third round, Murray reached the semifinals in Monte Carlo, cutting his existing points deficit almost in half.
At the Internazionali BNL d'Italia in Rome next week, Murray will begin just 280 points behind Federer -- roughly the difference between reaching the semifinals and the finals of Rome (240 points).
The other player in the running for No. 2 is Novak Djokovic, who at No. 3 is in fact currently higher in the rankings than Murray at No. 4. But Djokovic, like Federer, has a lot to defend in the coming weeks -- he must win virtually every match he plays between now and the French Open to have any chance of moving up. In practical terms, Murray is a much stronger threat.
And even if Federer manages to hold off Murray going into Paris, he is likely to fall to No. 3 anyway unless he can again reach the final. (That would have fewer consequences because the Wimbledon's seeding formula will help the five-time champ remain the second seed at the All England club.)
But apart from any personal ramifications, a fall for Federer in the rankings would also have tremendous symbolic significance. It would officially mark the end of the Big Two era, during which Federer and Nadal have shared No. 1 and No. 2 rankings among themselves since July 25, 2005.
Until Nadal overtook him last summer, Federer had been No. 1 in the world for 237 straight weeks, longer than any other man or woman.
But on a damp, blustery Thursday in Monte Carlo last week, he was not even No. 1 in his own country. Fellow Swiss Stanislas Wawrinka took him down in straight sets 6-4, 7-5, posting a solid performance while his friend and Olympic gold medal doubles partner struggled once again with his serve and forehand.
Before and after the defeat, Federer stressed that there was nothing at stake for him this week.
"I think of this tournament as a bonus, really, because I wasn't planning to play. It's a good chance to get some matches in," he said before the tournament.
On Thursday, he added, "It just showed me again this week what I need to work on for next week. That's why I think it was good to come here."
In terms of his form, that's true -- with only a self-confessed 10 hours of practice fitted in between wedding preparations last week, a rusty start was somewhat inevitable.
Yet there is more to it than that, as Federer must know -- the early loss has opened the door even wider for Murray to grab the coveted second seeding spot at the French Open. It is not yet a given, because Murray must first make either one semifinal or both quarterfinals at Rome and Madrid, as well as go a round or two further than the Swiss.
But that prospect now looks perfectly possible, which is why any honeymoon period Federer might have hoped to enjoy on clay is definitely over.
Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.
After all of Roger Federer's tears, racket bashing and sour performances, the symbolic end of the "Big Two" era looms.