Australian Open Preview

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Roger Federer isn't going to give Andy Murray too much street cred until the young Scot has earned it.

Federer had trouble containing an incredulous laugh this week
when he heard that British bookmakers had made 21-year-old Murray
the favorite, or at least equal favorite, to win the Australian

As if it wasn't bad enough that Rafael Nadal had ended the Swiss
star's five-year Wimbledon reign last season and his record
237-week stretch at No. 1. Or that Novak Djokovic had beaten him in
the last Australian Open - the only one of the last 15 Grand Slam
tournaments not won by either Federer or Nadal.

Murray "has never won a Slam. Novak is the defending champion
here. Rafa (Nadal) had an incredible season last year," said
Federer, who is one title shy of equaling Pete Sampras' record of
14 Grand Slam singles championships. "I won the last Slam of last
season. It's surprising to hear."

Murray has only twice been beyond the fourth round at a major,
his best run being a runner-up finish to Federer at the last U.S.

But British hopes of a first men's Grand Slam title since 1936
rose sharply when Murray beat Federer in an exhibition match at Abu
Dhabi and in the semifinals of the Qatar Open at Doha last week.

For Federer, the two losses this month to Murray were a whole
lot easier to take than his confidence-denting preparation for the
last Australian Open.

"I didn't quite know where my game was," Federer said during
the Kooyong exhibition tournament this week, thinking back 12
months to when he had a bout with mononucleosis before the first
Grand Slam event of the season. " ... 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 forced him to withdraw from all tournaments
before the last Australian Open, where he was defending champion,
and he went in cold. He said he genuinely feared a first-round

He lost to Djokovic in the semifinals and his aura of
invincibility seemed to be gone. Suddenly the sublime backhand
winners weren't routinely kissing the lines. The almost ethereal
court movement started to appear, ever-so-slightly, labored.

Federer and Djokovic are again on course for a semifinal meeting
at Melbourne Park after the draw was released Friday. It presents a
tough road for Federer, who could face former No. 1 Carlos Moya in
the second round, 2005 Australian Open champion Marat Safin in the
third and Swiss Davis Cup teammate Stanislas Wawrinka in the

Federer lost the French Open and Wimbledon titles and No. 1
ranking to Nadal, who also won the gold medal at the Beijing

But the Swiss thinks he regained momentum by winning the U.S.

"It is a good feeling to enter a Grand Slam if you have won the
last one," he said.

Serena Williams can identify with that feeling.

She enters the Australian Open as the No. 2-seeded woman seed
and the reigning U.S. Open champion.

Defending Australian champion Maria Sharapova is sidelined with
an injured right shoulder and fifth-seeded Ana Ivanovic, runner-up
here last year before she won the French Open, is seemingly out of
form and without a coach.

While Jelena Jankovic of Serbia and Russians Dinara Safina and
Elena Dementieva are ranked Nos. 1, 3 and 4, none has won a major.

Williams' elder sister, Venus, looms as the other leading
contender and a potential semifinal rival in the draw.

Venus won the Williams derby in last year's Wimbledon final to
claim her fifth title there and rounded off the year by winning the
WTA Championship.

Serena's win at the U.S. Open made her only the sixth woman to
win nine or more Grand Slam singles titles.

She also returned to the No. 1 ranking for four weeks in '08,
five years and a month after previously holding it. And a recent
trend points to another title - she has won the Australian title
every alternate year since 2003, when she beat Venus in the final.

In 2005, she saved three match points in a semifinal win over
Sharapova and then beat Lindsay Davenport for the title.

In 2007, she was unseeded and ranked No. 81 when she beat five
seeds before a 6-2, 6-1 rout of Sharapova in the final. But she's
not relying on it just being a matter of sequence.

"It'd be great to win it again. I'm not really superstitious,"
she said. "Obviously I would like to win in 2009. To be honest I
really wanted to win in 2008 but it didn't quite work out."

She got in some good practice in Sydney this week, fending off
three match points in a quarterfinal win over Caroline Wozniacki of
Denmark late Wednesday before losing to Olympic champion Dementievain the semis.

"I made a lot of errors and made her look like a champ, really.
I just pretty much gave her the match," Williams said. But, "It
was good to have a few matches under my belt getting ready for

"I feel like I'm going to play a lot better than what I did
this week."

While Federer and Williams know what it's like to enter a
tournament underprepared, Nadal is going to have to learn.

Tendinitis in his right knee forced him out of the Paris
Masters, the Masters Cup and Spain's win in the Davis Cup final at
the end of last year. The 22-year-old lefty has played three
official matches this year, and also lost to Murray in the Abu
Dhabi exhibition tournament.

Nadal and Murray are on the same side of the draw.

Federer doesn't think Murray will benefit from the bookmakers'
prognostications, thinking expectations could weigh him down.

He thought pressure might also affect Djokovic, the 21-year-old
Serbian defending a Grand Slam title for the first time.

Taking himself out of the equation, he picked Nadal to have the
best chance of the others. Nadal lost to Frenchman Jo-Wilfried
Tsonga, the Muhammad Ali lookalike, in the semifinals last season.

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 me took a lot
of them. ... They don't come easily."

Djokovic lost his opening match at the Brisbane International
last week, his first tournament with a new racket sponsor. He
accepted a wild-card entry for Sydney, where he lost in the
semifinals 6-4, 7-6 (3) to Finland's Jarkko Nieminen on Friday.

"I'm aware of the pressure and expectations that are behind me
as the defending champion," Djokovic said. "But look, on the
brighter side, I will have a big challenge in front of me.

"I have to get used to that if I want to stay in the top of the
men's tennis. Hopefully I'm going to be a couple of times in this
situation as a defending champion."

Murray thinks he'll get that experience, too, now that he's
overcome the nerves and is 5-2 career against Federer.

"It doesn't make any difference whether people expect you to
win or not. It doesn't change my mentality," he said. "The more
matches you play, you realize what the bookies are saying doesn't
make any difference once you get on court, whether they are saying
good things or bad things."

Murray, who was placed in the top half of the draw with Nadal
and wouldn't face Federer until the final, said he had no fear of
the Swiss star.

"The more you play against him the less fearful you are, you're
not scared to win the match," he said. "Now when I play him I
don't get nervous and if I play my best tennis I can beat him.

"I'm going to enjoy being one of the favorites and give it my
best. I've got a lot more Grand Slams to play. I'm really chilled

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

On the eve of Friday's draw, he was asked how many more Grand
Slam events he was capable of winning. His answer, delivered in his
matter-of-fact manner: "Plenty."