Roger Federer is the heavy Australian Open favorite, and why not? He was 81-4 last year and has been No. 1 for 103 weeks in a row.
BY MICHELLE KAUFMAN
New year, same old question entering the Australian Open: Can anyone beat Roger Federer?
Officially, the answer is yes. In fact, Federer lost to 41st-ranked Tommy Haas just last week. But that was an exhibition tournament, and he shrugged it off. As for the five-set
loss to David Nalbandian at the Masters Cup final in November, nobody seems to be putting too much stock into that one, either.
''I think Roger was playing probably 80 percent right, and he still should have won in straight sets,'' Lleyton Hewitt said at a news conference last week. ``He was still up two
sets to love. So I wouldn't read a lot into that match. Obviously, Roger is the *** player going around at the moment. Everyone knows that.''
Added James Blake, after winning an Aussie Open tuneup event on Saturday: 'At this point I think he's head and shoulders above the rest of the field. . . . If he does continue his
mental fortitude that he's had for the last two years, then in a few years we're going to be talking about whether or not he's going to break Sampras' record [14 Grand Slam
titles]. That's going to be exciting for the fans. It's exciting for us to see.''
One need only look at Federer's record to be assured he is far and away the best in the game at the moment. He went 81-4 last year and won 11 titles, including Wimbledon and the
U.S. Open. He has never lost in the final of a major. He has won six of the past 10 Slams and compiled a 160-10 record since the start of 2004. And, he has been atop the world
rankings for 103 consecutive weeks.
The game's other top players keep waiting for him to have an off day, catch a flu, twist an ankle, but it rarely happens. He is 10-1 against Andy Roddick, including wins at the
2004 and 2005 Wimbledon finals. He is 8-3 against Andre Agassi, the latest at the 2005 U.S. Open final. He is 7-2 against Marat Safin, and has won nine in a row against Hewitt.
Two of the men who beat Federer last season -- Safin and No. 2-ranked Spaniard Rafael Nadal -- are sitting out the Australian Open with injuries, as is four-time Aussie Open winner
Agassi. The depleted field makes Federer a bigger favorite than ever, and he relishes that role.
''I'm used to it,'' he told The Associated Press. ``Red hot, hot favorite, it really doesn't matter. I don't have to raise the bar. I have to stay hungry, and that's not too hard
Federer, who rarely gets hurt, was slowed by an ankle injury last winter, but he says that is completely healed. He unwrapped his rackets in early January and swept through the
season-opening tournament at Doha, Qatar, without losing a set. He beat upstart French *** Gael Monfils in the final.
'I think the question going into the season is, `How great is Federer, and who will step up to challenge him?' '' said TV analyst and U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe. ``Will
it be Nadal or Hewitt or Roddick, or will it be one of the young guys like [Richard] Gasquet, Monfils or [Tomas] Berdych, guys who haven't been embarrassed by him yet and have
nothing to lose?''
The three highest seeds in Federer's path in Melbourne are No. 2 Hewitt, No. 3 Nikolay Davydenko and No. 6 Guillermo Coria. Federer has won 18 matches in a row against those three
The toughest obstacle might be possible fourth-round opponent Gasquet, the 14th-ranked French ***, who upset Federer in Monte Carlo, Monaco, last year and gave him fits in
Hamburg, Germany. Both of those matches were on clay, but still, Federer probably wasn't thrilled to see Gasquet on his side of the draw.
He also might have to contend with an American. Roddick won a tuneup event Down Under, as did Blake, and Robby Ginepri proved with his U.S. Open semifinal run that he is for real.
''I think we could see two Americans in the semis, I really do,'' McEnroe said. ``I think we could see Roddick plus Ginepri, Blake or Taylor Dent. All those guys had breakthroughs
last year, and there's no reason to think they won't play well in Australia, on that surface.''
HOPE HE FALTERS
Blake admitted the best you can do is stay in striking range of Federer and hope he cracks.
''It's to the point where you really have to play your best, and you have to hope he's a little off,'' Blake said. ``But, I mean, there's always that chance. I think at his best,
when he's playing his best, he's going to beat just about anyone in the world, but there is that day where you can play your best tennis and, I mean, if he gets a little nervous. .
. . Being No. 1 in the world, I can only imagine the pressure of every time you're the favorite and, you know, people are cheering for the underdog.
``. . . So Roger's got to deal with that. He's done an incredible job of doing that for two years, but you never know when that's going to break.''