NEW YORK - As last year's U.S. Open began, plenty of people were wondering what was wrong with Roger Federer. Feeling sorry for the guy, even.
Federer arrived at Flushing Meadows in 2008 ranked No. 2, not No. 1. He arrived with - gasp! - zero Grand Slam titles for the season, having lost to Rafael Nadal in finals at the French Open (a blowout) and Wimbledon (a heartbreaker). He arrived to a chorus of questions about whether Nadal had surpassed him for good.
U.S. Open spectators rallied to Federer's side, cheering for him as if he were an underdog - rather than the man who would depart with the champion's trophy for the fifth year in a row.
'I was really blown away. I thought that was so cool,' Federer said in an interview with The Associated Press. 'It was like they said: 'We have to support our man here, because he needs to come back to where he belongs.' It was like they wanted to push me back to the top. Winning the U.S. Open was sort of the jump start.'
Yes, as this year's last Grand Slam tournament starts Monday, Federer is back.
Starting with his victory in New York, Federer has won three of the past four major tournaments to raise his career total to 15 Grand Slam championships, breaking Pete Sampras' record. He is ranked No. 1 again.
And there's been more good news off the court: He's now married and a father - of twins, no less.
'You change, all of a sudden,' Federer said, snapping his fingers, 'from needing nine hours of sleep, to saying, 'Five is plenty.'
As Federer-the-father bids to become the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to win three consecutive major championships in a single season, and the first since Bill Tilden in 1920-25 to win six straight titles at the American Grand Slam tournament, it's his nemesis, Nadal, who looks to be in need of a boost.
It's Nadal who recently relinquished the No. 1 ranking; he's now at No. 3. It's Nadal whose 31-match winning streak at the French Open ended. It's Nadal who did not defend his Wimbledon title, citing sore knees.
Nadal returned to the tour this month, but he acknowledges he's not in peak condition.
'You never know. You never know,' said Nadal, who needs a U.S. Open title to complete a career Grand Slam. 'We will see how I am physically.'
Federer's take? 'He's downplaying his chances, which is very Rafa-like,' Federer said. 'I understand. He has to be cautious.'
But Federer also thought he noticed something else bothering the Spaniard - a stomach muscle injury.
'He looked a bit hurt in his abdominal last week, I have to say ... and already prior to that,' Federer said Thursday as he munched on pretzels in midtown Manhattan. 'I don't know how that's going to affect him now. You're not only talking about the knees, but also the abdominal.'
There are other men in the mix, to be sure.
Andy Murray, for example, is ranked No. 2 and hoping to win one more match at the U.S. Open than he did in 2008, when he reached his first major final.
'I was close last year,' Murray said, 'and I think I'm playing better now.'
Andy Roddick, the 2003 champion, is a new man, with a trimmer physique, a more varied game and the confidence that comes with a strong run at Wimbledon - even if it did end disappointingly for the American with a 16-14 loss to Federer in the longest fifth set in Grand Slam final history.
Novak Djokovic of Serbia seems likely to add to his lone Grand Slam title one day. There are others who play well on hard courts, such as Jo-Wilfried Tsonga of France or Juan Martin del Potro of Argentina.
But right now, men's tennis comes down to the pair known as Rog and Rafa: One or the other has won 16 of the last 17 major championships. They played each other in seven of those finals.
'When he's on, obviously he's one of the toughest guys to beat out there. He's one of the big favorites next to me, in my personal opinion,' Federer said. 'But that is only if he's healthy, and we'll only know after a couple of matches played here. I hope he comes back strong, of course. I love the rivalry.'
No woman really seems to rival Serena Williams when it comes to major tournaments lately.
Like Federer, she is the defending champion at the U.S. Open.
Like Federer, she has won three of the last four Grand Slam titles. Her career haul is 11, the most among active women.
Dinara Safina and Elena Dementieva, meanwhile, would love to get just one. Safina, younger sister of 2000 U.S. Open champion Marat Safin, is 0-3 in major finals. When last seen at a Grand Slam tournament, she was getting thumped 6-1, 6-0 by Venus Williams in the Wimbledon semifinals. At least Dementieva held a match point against Serena Williams before losing to her at that stage at the All England Club. But the Beijing Olympic gold medalist is 0-2 in major finals.
In addition to the Williams sisters and that pair of Russians, other women to keep an eye on over the next two weeks include 2006 champion Maria Sharapova, who missed last year's tournament with a shoulder injury, and 2005 champion Kim Clijsters, who recently came out of retirement after getting married and having a baby.
Which means Clijsters and Federer are both part of tennis' stroller set.
To hear the 28-year-old Federer tell it, pursuing more Grand Slam titles will be a lot easier now than it was as an expectant father. That's probably bad news for foes, considering he won his first French Open title in June and regained his Wimbledon title in July, both while awaiting his daughters' arrival.
He was a worrywart from the moment he learned his wife, Mirka, was pregnant.
'I remember practicing,' Federer said, 'and every shot, I was going, 'Oh, my God. Oh, my God. Oh, my God. It's really happening!'
Now, he said, is 'the easy part' - no matter how much crying there might be ('You'll try everything to make them feel good,' he noted) or how many diapers need changing ('I thought it was going to take, like, 10 minutes. If you're a pro at it, it takes a couple of minutes. I like doing it,' he explained).
What sort of doubles team might the Federer twins make one day?
'Oh, that's not at all on my agenda: 'Girls need to be tennis stars.' Not at all,' Federer said with a laugh. 'If they want to play, great. If they don't want to play, that's OK. But we have great tennis genes in our family. Mirka was a good player, too. She made the third round here, you know.'
Yeah, and Dad is no slouch, either.
SideBar: At a glance
Surface: Hard courts.
Where: The USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York.
Schedule: Play begins Monday. The women's singles final is Sept. 12; the men's singles final is Sept. 13.
2008 men's singles champion: Roger Federer of Switzerland.
2008 women's singles champion: Serena Williams of the United States.
Last Year: Each singles final was delayed a day because of rain. Federer beat Andy Murray 6-2, 7-5, 6-2 for a fifth U.S. Open title in a row. Williams won her third U.S. Open championship - first since 2002 - by beating Jelena Jankovic 6-4, 7-5.
New This Year: Video replay technology has been added to the Grandstand, giving the tournament three courts with electronic line-calling. Night sessions may have a men's match scheduled first, followed by a women's match; it has been the other way around in the past.
Key Statistic: 34 - Consecutive U.S. Open matches won by Federer. He is bidding to win a sixth consecutive title at the American Grand Slam tournament, something that hasn't been done by anyone since Bill Tilden from 1920-25.
Prize Money: Total of $21.6 million, with $1.6 million each to the men's and women's singles champions.
TV: ESPN2, Tennis Channel,CBS (starting Sept. 5).