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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, January 16, 2010

Tennis: There's more to life than tennis for Federer

AP Sports Writer

MELBOURNE, Australia Life has changed so much for Roger Federer since his teary finish in last year's Australian Open final loss to Rafael Nadal.

Twelve months ago, the talk was all about his game, his recovery from illness and his prospects for equaling Pete Sampras' record of 14 Grand Slam singles titles.

On Saturday, two days before the start of the first major of 2010, the questions revolved around his recent experience as a dad with an aside on his friendship with troubled golfer Tiger Woods.

Federer didn't once mention No. 2-ranked Nadal, or No. 3 Novak Djokovic, who upset him in the 2008 semifinals in Melbourne, or No. 4 Juan Martin del Potro, who surprised him in the last U.S. Open final.

Nor was he asked about them. Defending champion Nadal and No. 5 Andy Murray had both been questioned about their thoughts on the Australian Open favorite. Not Federer.

Now that he's married, has twin daughters and has won his 14th and 15th majors to beat Sampras' mark, Federer seems inclined to talk more broadly about jetlag and how it affects the family, or whether he can stay awake late watching tennis on TV without losing too much sleep.

But he's certain that no change has diminished his desire to win more titles.

"The hunger is still there," he said. "I'm working as hard. I haven't been just baby-sitting, you know. I also like to go out in the morning, put in the big hours. I feel my game's really where it's supposed to be."

Top-ranked Federer won't play his first match at the Australian Open until Tuesday, so he organized an exhibition on Sunday to raise money for the victims of the Haiti earthquakes.

Nadal will start Monday, aiming for his first Grand Slam title since his previous trip to Australia. In 2008, he beat Federer at Wimbledon for his first major on grass. His win 12 months ago was his first major title on hardcourts.

But it preceded one of his most unexpected Grand Slam losses. After four consecutive French Open titles, Nadal lost in the fourth round at Roland Garros last year to then No. 23-ranked Robin Soderling, giving Federer an easier passage than usual to his first major on clay and his 14th overall to match the record.

Nadal missed two months of the season because of knee problems, but still won five titles and helped Spain take the Davis Cup.

The six-time Grand Slam title winner knows he's not the favorite at Melbourne Park, conceding that Federer deserves that status. But he doesn't think his chances of back-to-back Aussie titles should be discounted too much.

"I didn't have bad results last five months, no?" he said. "I didn't win. I didn't have perfect results. But I played. I was there all the tournaments.

"Sure, is true, playing against the top players I didn't have a very good results. But I was playing not very well but not bad. So just a little bit more" improvement will help.

Nadal opened this year by winning an exhibition tournament at Abu Dhabi, then reaching the final of the Qatar Open.

"I started the season really well, playing really well there in Abu Dhabi and Doha," he said. "That's the way. I try to play like this. If I play like I played there, I'm not worried. The only way to have confidence is winning matches, winning important matches ... So I am in the really right way."

Last year, Nadal had to survive a five-set semifinal win over fellow Spaniard Fernando Verdasco before outlasting Federer in a five-set final. His emotions were torn between euphoria for his victory and compassion for Federer, who wept uncontrollably at the trophy presentation.

Nadal thinks the timing of the Australian Open at the very start of the season makes it a wide-open competition.

"A lot of players can win right now," he said. "I don't want to say everybody, but yeah, like 12 players, 13 players have a good chance."

Federer or Nadal have won 17 of the past 19 majors, interrupted only by Djokovic's win in Australia in 2008 and del Potro's victory over Federer in the U.S. Open final last September.

Andy Murray has been close to the top for the past two years, yet remains the only player in the top five without a major title. Then again, no British man has won a Grand Slam event since Fred Perry in 1936.

"I get asked about it a lot in the buildup to all of the Slams," Murray said. "But, I mean, it's so irrelevant to the way I play or approach my matches. You know when I'm on the court, it's the last thing I'm thinking about. I'm not thinking how many years it's been since a Brit won a Grand Slam. ... I'm just thinking about how I'm going to win the match."

He changed his preparation this year, skipping Doha, which he had won the previous two years, so he could adjust to Australian conditions at the Hopman Cup in Perth.

It set him back in terms of rankings, contributing to him slipping out of the top four and therefore having to play Nadal in the quarterfinals in Australia if they advance that far. Regardless, Murray hopes the change will help break the British drought.

"I'd like to try and end that sooner rather than later," he said. "But, you know, if I think about it all the time, put more pressure on myself by thinking about it, that's not going to help."