Roger Federer faces year of destiny

This year, Federer comes to Melbourne with a few questions to answer. Can he regain the number one ranking? Does he still have the mental edge?

updated: January 15, 2009 19:03 IST
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Just a year ago, Roger Federer arrived at the Australian Open as the undisputed king of the courts, ready to kick off another season of domination with his third successive title.

A trifling virus couldn't stop the Swiss maestro, right? Wrong.

The debilitated Federer went down in the semis to eventual champion Novak Djokovic, ending a record run of 10 straight Grand Slam finals and setting in motion the toughest period of his career.

This year, Federer comes to Melbourne with a few questions to answer. Can he regain the number one ranking? Does he still have the mental edge? Can he beat Pete Sampras's Grand Slam record before age catches up with him? He can start to answer at least one of those straight away.

"I have high hopes and aim to play well from the start," he said this week.

"Of course I'm trying to beat the record of 14 from Sampras so we will see how it goes."

Federer, who begins the year without the top ranking for the first time since 2004, is entering a new phase of his career. He has already announced a slimmed-down schedule, dropping clay-court events to stay fresh for Wimbledon where he is desperate to win back the title from Rafael Nadal.

If all goes to plan, Federer will win here and overhaul Sampras's 14 Grand Slam titles in London, cementing his legacy as the greatest player of all time.

That career, with 57 titles and counting plus 44 million US dollars in prize money, stems from humble beginnings when he was born in Basel, Switzerland, on August 8, 1981.

Federer first picked up a racquet aged eight, inspired by the exploits of Sampras and Boris Becker and an outstanding amateur career followed, including the junior Wimbledon title in 1998.

After turning pro, he ended 1999 as the youngest player in the top 100 and reached his first ATP final in Marseille the following year.

But it was in 2001 that he made his entrance, famously ending Sampras's 31-match Wimbledon winning streak in the fourth round.

He stalled briefly, losing a number of finals in 2002 when he was staggered by the death in a car accident of his first coach, Peter Carter.

Rock-bottom, and the career-defining moment, came at the 2003 French Open with a first-round defeat to Luis Horna. One month later the chastened Federer took Wimbledon by storm for his first Grand Slam title aged 22.

It set the stage for a spell of unprecedented dominance. Federer reached number one in February 2004 and racked up 11 titles that year, repeating at Wimbledon and winning the US and Australian Opens.

Tennis had rarely seen anything like it but Federer matched the exploits in 2005, winning another 11 including successful defences at Wimbledon and the US Open in a season he finished 81-4.

Only the French Open eluded him in 2006 and 2007 as Federer extended his incredible Grand Slam run which left most of his rivals, except Nadal, at a loss.

It was a bout of mononucleosis which finally stopped him when he went out in the semis here last year, beginning his worst season since becoming number one.

He was hammered by Nadal in the French Open final but recovered for Wimbledon, only to lose his five-year unbeaten run to the Spaniard in an epic showdown.

Suddenly, Federer was vulnerable and he lost his number one ranking after a record 237 weeks.

Now world number two, and in danger of slipping to third behind Djokovic, Federer remains his phlegmatic self. "I felt the most (pressure) when (I) reached six or seven slam titles and everyone was expecting me to win every match I played. That's gone away and it's a relief," he shrugged.

"But I'm very motivated and will remain so for a long time. I just don't feel a lot of pressure now."