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Federer perks up down under

No worries: a relaxed Federer during a press conference ahead of the Australian Open

(Keystone)

On Monday Roger Federer begins his campaign in Australia to win the most open Open for years and equal Pete Sampras's record of 14 grand slam titles.

Federer says he has a "good feeling" and is "excited", but assuming he gets through the first round against Andreas Seppi, a 24-year-old Italian ranked 34 in the world, he knows he's going to have to pull out all the stops – and shots – en route to victory.

The tournament should be a cracker. Whereas only one of the past 15 grand slam tournaments has not been won by either Federer or Rafael Nadal – who were always clear favourites – four players have a realistic chance of lifting the trophy on February 1.

Federer, who has already won in Melbourne three times, had to stifle a laugh last week when told that British bookmakers had made 21-year-old Andy Murray the favourite, or at least equal favourite, to win the Australian Open.

"[Murray] has never won a slam. Novak [Djokovic] is the defending champion here. Rafa [Nadal] had an incredible season last year. I won the last slam of last season," said 27-year-old Federer. "It's surprising to hear."

Murray, who now leads Federer 5-2, has only twice been beyond the fourth round at a major – his best run being the final of last year's US Open, where he was beaten by Federer.

But British hopes of a first men's grand slam title since 1936 rose sharply when the Scot beat Federer in an exhibition match at Abu Dhabi and then at the Qatar Open at Doha on January 10.

First-round fear

Federer will be hoping for a good start to 2009. Last year Nadal ended his five-year Wimbledon reign and his record 237-week stay at number one. In addition, Djokovic beat him in the Australian Open, which he had won in 2004, 2006 and 2007.

For Federer the losses to Murray were much easier to take than his confidence-denting preparation for the Australian Open last year.

"I didn't quite know where my game was," Federer said during the Kooyong exhibition tournament this week, which he won on Saturday by beating his compatriot and Olympic gold medal-winning doubles partner Stanislas Wawrinka 6-1, 6-3.

Thinking back 12 months to when he was struggling with mononucleosis (glandular fever), he admits: "That is kind of what shook me up a bit."

Federer entered 2008 as a strong contender to win all four majors and ended with just one, increasing his career haul to 13.

The mononucleosis kept him out of tournaments before the 2008 Australian Open, where he was defending champion, and he went in cold. He said he genuinely feared a first-round exit – an event on which one bookmaker is offering 14-1 this year.

He lost to Djokovic in the semifinals and his aura of invincibility seemed to be gone. Suddenly the backhand winners weren't routinely kissing the lines and his almost effortless court movement started to seem slightly laboured.

Tough draw

Federer and Djokovic are again on course for a semifinal meeting at Melbourne Park. It is a tough road for Federer, who could face former number one Carlos Moya in the second round and 2005 Australian Open champion Marat Safin in the third.

Nevertheless, Federer thinks he regained momentum at the US Open. "It's a good feeling to enter a grand slam if you've won the last one."

Federer doesn't think Murray will benefit from the bookmakers' predictions, thinking expectations could weigh him down. He thought pressure might also tell on Djokovic, who is defending a grand slam title for the first time.

"[Murray] put himself in a position, but winning a grand slam is a different animal," Federer said. "Not many guys have been able to win a grand slam in the last few years. Rafa and I took a lot of them. They don't come easily."

Big opportunities

For his part Murray said he had no fear of Federer. "The more you play against him the less fearful you are, you're not scared to win the match," he said. "I'm going to enjoy being one of the favourites and give it my best. I've got a lot more grand slams to play. I'm really chilled out."

Federer is thinking along similar lines and isn't ruling out becoming the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to win the Grand Slam: all four majors in a calendar year.

Asked this week how many more grand slam titles he was capable of winning, Federer replied in his matter-of-fact manner: "Plenty."

"New season, big opportunities for me," he said after winning in Kooyong. "I'm chasing a lot of records."

swissinfo with agencies

Key facts

The Australian Open is one of four grand slam tournaments of the ATP circuit.
The others are the French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open.
Australia's Rod Laver is the only man to win all four grand slam events in the same year (1969). Steffi Graf did it in 1988 (also winning the Olympic Gold for a "Golden Slam").
Federer has clinched three of the grand slam tournaments three times (2004, 2006 and 2007), but has never won the French Open.

end of infobox

Roger Federer

Age: 27
Match record: 620-150
Career singles titles: 57
Grand slam titles: 13 – Australian Open (2004, 2006, 2007), Wimbledon (2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007), US Open (2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008)
Past six 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.

end of infobox

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