World tennis number one Roger Federer is hoping to start the year with a bang by adding the 2010 Australian Open to his titles of 2004, 2006 and 2007.
The top-seeded Wizard of Oz on Tuesday faces 26-year-old Russian Igor Andreev – ranked a challenging 36 in the world – and will be hoping to make his 22nd grand slam final on January 31.
That could be a chance for revenge against Spanish nemesis Rafael Nadal, who last year reduced the 28-year-old Swiss to tears after a five-set thriller.
“Last year I had a problem at the start of the season with my back. But I feel fine now because I’ve been practising enough to feel confident of winning,” Federer said.
“I got better and better as the season went on. I was able to bounce back and was on a roll. I can do it again. That’s a good feeling to have.”
Although Federer goes into Melbourne having been beaten in his previous two tournaments by sixth-seeded Russian Nikolay Davydenko, the situation is markedly different from 12 months ago and his fans have reason to be optimistic.
2008 was by Federer’s stellar standards a poor year, in which he won only one grand slam title (the US Open). He flew to Melbourne at the beginning of 2009 with many people saying it was the beginning of the end – as well as a dose of mononucleosis and food poisoning.
There was also the additional pressure of needing just one more grand slam title to equal Pete Sampras’s record of 14.
As it turned out, 2009 was an excellent year for Federer, who reached all four grand slam finals and won two, including the French Open for the first time, thus overtaking Sampras.
So Federer enters 2010 knowing his place in the record books is secure for the near future. But will this mean he’ll take his foot off the pedal?
“I think it’s good that the pressure is off. I think Federer’s still putting enough pressure on himself and he’s decided he still wants to go after a few more major titles over the next few years,” Simon Graf, a tennis expert at Zurich’s Tages-Anzeiger newspaper, told swissinfo.ch.
“He’s going to devote himself to tennis for as long as he can.”
“It’s good he’s got [Sampras’s] record off his back and that he’s got the French Open – that’s going to help his tennis. I don’t think he’s not hungry any more. To stay on top for such a long time, you have to be extremely disciplined and hungry. It’s even tougher to stay on top than to get there,” he said.
“[Winning 15 titles] and Paris were big goals for him, but you could see during Paris that the whole thing was really getting to him and the second week of Paris, after Nadal went out, was mentally probably the toughest he’s been through. So I think now he can play freely.”
Nevertheless Federer’s preparation could have gone smoother. On January 8 he lost to Davydenko, who also beat him at the season-ending championships in London less than two months ago, 6-4 6-4 in the semifinals of the Qatar Open.
“I felt my arm from the cold but it’s not an excuse. He served well, many 200s [200km/h] out there. He made it difficult as the match went on,” Federer said. “There’s nothing to worry about my arm. I’ll be fine.”
A couple of days later he announced he wouldn’t be playing at the Kooyong Classic exhibition tournament just outside Melbourne for only the second time in the past seven years, deciding instead to practise.
“Federer’s still the favourite. He’s had a few losses, but best-of-five is a different story. It’s really difficult to beat him – he’s been in 22 grand slam semifinals in a row! I doubt he’ll suffer an upset loss,” Graf said.
And how important is the Australian Open for the rest of the season?
“Well, winning the Ozzie Open is a nice start to the year! But I don’t think any of the top guys will be too affected if they lose early at the Australian Open. There’s still so much tennis to come,” he said.
“And I think for Federer and probably most of the other guys the biggest stages are Paris and Wimbledon. Melbourne is like a really, really nice bonus!”
Lest we forget...
While most eyes will be on Roger Federer, there will in fact be four other Swiss toiling under the Australian sun: Stanislas Wawrinka (seeded 19), Marco Chiudinelli (ranked 56 in the world), Timea Bacsinszky (51) and Stefanie Vögele (74). Switzerland’s top-ranked female, Patty Schnyder, is injured.
The bookmakers make Federer slight favourite over Nadal at around 3-1 (put one franc on the Swiss and if he wins you get three back, along with your stake). Nadal is floating around around 3.5-1.
The only other serious contenders are Juan Martín del Potro, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic, all at around 5-1. Davydenko is 9-1 and Wawrinka his usual 200-1.
In the women, there’s nothing between Serena Williams and Kim Clijsters, both at 3-1, with Justine Henin at around 4-1.
A double bet at 15-1 is available on both Federer and either Williams or Clijsters winning. Not that swissinfio.ch encourages gambling, but more tempting are the odds on Davydenko and US Open finalist Caroline Wozniacki: put one franc on both of them to win the whole thing and you’ll get back 200.
Thomas Stephens, swissinfo.ch
The Australian Open is the first of the four Grand Slam tennis tournaments held each year. It was held for the first time in 1905 and was contested on grass until 1987, when it moved to the hard courts at Melbourne Park.
The two main courts used in the tournament are Rod Laver Arena and Hisense Arena. These feature retractable roofs, which can be shut in case of rain or extreme heat.
The 2009 Australian Open achieved the highest ever single-day day/night attendance record for any Grand Slam tournament of 66,018.
In 2010 the winners will receive A$2,000,000 (SFr1,900,000) and the runners-up A$1,000,000, with the amount then more or less halving for each round.
Match record: 681-162
Career singles titles: 61
Grand slam titles: 15 – Australian Open (2004, 2006, 2007), French Open (2009), Wimbledon (2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009), US Open (2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008)
Past seven Australian Opens: He won the event in 2007, 2006 and 2004. He lost in the semi-finals in 2005 and 2008 and went out in the fourth round in 2003. He lost to Nadal in the final in 2009.