Jan 16, 2009

Sport - Tennis;Federer to Murray: You want it, you earn it

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP): 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 Open.

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 reign 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 had an incredible season last year,'' said Federer, who is bidding to equal Pete Sampras' record of 14 Grand Slam singles titles. ``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. Open.

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 at the Qatar Open at Doha.

For Federer, the losses 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 was struggling with mononucleosis. `` ... 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 last Australian Open, where he was defending champion, and he went in cold. He said he genuinely feared a first-round exit.

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 seem, ever-so-slightly, labored.

Federer and Djokovic are again on course for a semifinal meeting at Melbourne Park after the draw on Friday. It was 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 fourth.

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

But he thinks he regained momentum at the U.S. Open.

``It is a good feeling to enter a Grand Slam if you have won the last one.''

Serena Williams can identify with that feeling.

She enters the Australian Open as the women's No. 2 seed and as 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 semifinal rival.

Venus won the Williams derby in last year's Wimbledon final 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, 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 before losing to Olympic champion Dementieva in the semis.

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

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. 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 tell on 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 here 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 reached the semifinals late Thursday.

``I'm aware of the pressure and expectations that are behind me as the defending champion,'' Djokovic said. ``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 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 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, whether they are saying good things or bad things.''

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 favorites 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 all four majors in a calendar year.

Asked this week how many more Grand Slam events he was capable of winning, he replied in his matter-of-fact manner: ``Plenty.''

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