New set of challenges for Federer

From the Associated Press

All the brilliant numbers came down to one simple equation for Roger Federer: He was two sets short of a Grand Slam season.

Federer returns to Melbourne Park as the overwhelming favorite and defending Australian Open champion, one of three majors he won last year while compiling a 92-5 record.

Four of his losses were against second-ranked Rafael Nadal, including the French Open final when he won the first set before going down in four.

Federer was the first man since Rod Laver completed his second Grand Slam -- winning all four majors -- in 1969 to make the finals in all four majors in a single season.

But that was not quite good enough for the 25-year-old Swiss star. Federer skipped his regular season opener at the Qatar Open, deciding he needed a breather.

"You have to look at the big picture," he said. "I wanted to have a life, you know, have Christmas and New Year's and come here rested and not exhausted already. For me, it was most important to come to Melbourne in the mood to win the Australian Open, not come here and feel like it's a pain."

He did some work in Dubai, then arrived in Australia a week earlier than usual.

He had a patchy first week back, coming within two points of defeat against Radek Stepanek and then losing to Andy Roddick in the final of the Kooyong exhibition tournament. But he figures three matches is all the fine-tuning he needs.

"I'm probably playing again on Rod Laver Arena," he said. "I play so well on that court, and with my experience and the way I finished the season and the way I'm coming into this, I don't see why I should be vulnerable. It's going to be really tough for people to beat me here."

Federer got no favors in the draw Friday. His third- and fourth-round opponents could be U.S. Open semifinalist Mikhail Youzhny and former No. 1 Juan Carlos Ferrero, and last year's surprise finalist, Marcos Baghdatis, looms as a quarterfinal rival. Roddick and Ivan Ljubicic are possible semifinal opponents.

Nadal has a tough draw on the other side, with a tricky opener against Robert Kendrick, a possible third-round battle with Andy Murray and either James Blake or Lleyton Hewitt after that. And that is before possible showdowns with No. 3 Nikolay Davydenko or David Nalbandian.

Federer already has enough entry ranking points to ensure that by the end of February he'll break Jimmy Connors' record of 160 consecutive weeks at No. 1. More important to him, though, is he'll know by Jan. 28 whether he is set up for another shot at the season Grand Slam.

"If I win here, it gets very interesting," he said. "I'll know in a few weeks if that's a goal that I can give myself or not."

While Federer has dominated the men's tour, there has been no equivalent figure on the women's side since the decline of the Williams sisters.

U.S. Open champion Maria Sharapova was seeded No. 1 after top-ranked Justine Henin-Hardenne withdrew for undisclosed family reasons.

"I don't see it as putting any extra pressure on me," said Sharapova, at least a semifinalist at seven of the last 10 majors. "Whatever you are seeded, you've got to go out and play your matches."

One of five Russian women seeded in the top 10, Sharapova will open against Camille Pin of France and the first seeded player she could meet is No. 30 Tathiana Garbin in the fourth round.

Defending champion Amelie Mauresmo said she was unhappy with her form in a quarterfinal loss to Jelena Jankovic in Sydney.

Mauresmo had her personal breakthrough last year, winning her first Grand Slam title after 11 years of playing at the majors. She followed that up with a win at Wimbledon and spent most of the season at No. 1 before slipping to third, behind Henin-Hardenne and Sharapova.

Kim Clijsters, who reached finals in Hong Kong and Sydney the last two weeks, is determined to put up a big performance in what she expects will be her last Australian Open. At 23, she has decided she'll retire at the end of the year.

Martina Hingis, who could face Clijsters in the quarterfinals, is coming out at the other end of retirement. Hingis, 26, a three-time champion in Australia, returned here last year with a No. 349 ranking after three years off the tour and reached the quarterfinals. She ended the year at No. 7.

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