Federer and Henin lying in wait

3/21/2007 - Tennis

KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. -- As the Sony Ericsson Open gets under way, the day is quintessentially Florida -- sunshine, a breeze, a hint of sultry and sensual humidity, a brief rainstorm and a spring training-like atmosphere.

For this is only March, a time when hope holds eternal possibilities for all. As ex-pro Todd Martin once said, "It's not until later in the year when we get grouchy and feel we better do something to make the year count. In the early part of the year, we're all a lot more optimistic."

But while many gathered here are eager to make a good impression, Roger Federer and Justine Henin are among those who've come here strictly hankering for a victory. And yet, with the tournament barely under way, how each of these European stylists manages their respective energy is quite revealing.

On Tuesday, Federer walked into the Sony Ericsson Open's interview room off the heels of something that hadn't happened to him since last August: a loss. It had come 10 days ago, on a Sunday at the Pacific Life Open, to an Argentine, Guillermo Canas, on a warm day in the desert.

Listening to Federer at a press conference evokes the sound of European diplomacy, international banking or perhaps even a patrician museum curator. It's not just the accent, but the manner in which he speaks that suggests notions of global vision, of a man who as a child spent more time honing his language skills than parking in his parents' living room watching "SportsCenter" waiting for his pizza to arrive.

So there sat Federer, journalists from all continents hanging on his every word, tranquilly weighing the good and the bad (never the ugly with this guy) of an earlier-than-planned arrival in Miami.

"There's definitely some good things about it," he said. "All of a sudden, this was the first time in many years where I've had a week. I didn't know what I was going to do. So I had time to take another rest and enough time for leisure and also to practice. I got here early. I don't know if that's going to pay off, but yeah, it's going to be interesting to see my reaction here.

"I hope I can play well."

Leisure? Hope? Was this the man everyone from Rod Laver to Tiger Woods regards as the greatest ever?

It hardly mattered. For what is a press conference but mere talk? The words that fill the air are filler for the more consequential matter of action that separates sports from virtually all other human pursuits. Federer knows the interview game and plays it adroitly. When a reporter queried him about Latin American players, he tipped his hat to that region's contingent, adding that "the only ones that's really missing is Africa and Asia." When another asked if he ever plans to play in India, he noted that it's "definitely one of my priorities for the next year." No wonder Federer is an ideal spokesman for UNICEF.

But occasionally a relevant morsel emerges. While Federer declared he'd hardly watched a minute of the action from Indian Wells, he praised that event's winner, his big rival, Rafael Nadal. The Spaniard hadn't won a title since he'd beaten Federer last June in the French Open finals.

"For some, it may come as a surprise," Federer said about Nadal's victory at the Pacific Life Open. "For me, I think it's normal. I always said if I'm not No. 1, he should be No. 1."

Nadal, though, is the one who took a cross-country flight Monday from the West Coast. It hardly seems fair that he's the one shaking off jet lag while Federer has been languidly acclimating himself to a tournament where the humidity and wind are far greater factors than in the California desert. Such are the challenges of this exceptionally rigorous Tennis Masters double -- two tough tournaments that in some ways pose more challenges than a Grand Slam.

But while the top 50 men are automatically entered in both Indian Wells and Miami, only the second is mandatory for the women. Henin took full advantage of that choice, eschewing California in hopes of winning here for the first time.

At 9:45 on Tuesday morning, Henin was deep in the thick of a practice session. This is a woman who makes every minute of her tennis life count. If Federer's accent is arguably a telltale sign of his relaxed, confident manner and long-term view, Henin reveals much through her pale, flat face and dark brown eyes. She is always looking ahead, straight ahead toward her target, her eyes buried under her omnipresent hat -- a beak of sorts -- and a rolling gait that suggests images of a running back just getting up off the ground, ambling back to the huddle before charging forward once again. Think of Jim Brown with a great backhand.

Once on the court, the Belgian devoutly engaged with her long-standing coach, Carlos Rodriguez. As a male hitting partner whipped serves her way, Rodriguez and Henin exchanged words in the concise intimacy of people who know each other exquisitely well. Considering how many tools Henin has, it's fascinating to watch her constantly adjusting, tinkering, retooling, rethinking -- but at heart always playing the same eclectic game.

Jimmy Connors once remarked that one of the toughest challenges during a tournament was killing time while waiting to play. One of his approaches was to never watch action movies, lest he drain too much of his energy viewing a chase scene or shootout.

Don't get seduced by Federer's calm talk or Henin's grim focus. Like the more animated Connors, these two are also aware that the time to spring into action will be fast upon them. In some senses, particularly during this early part of an event, all tennis players are caged lions.

Joel Drucker is based in Oakland, Calif., and writes about tennis for Tennis Magazine and The Tennis Channel.