MELBOURNE, Australia – Roger Federer prefers to think of Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic as the favorites for the Australian Open title, despite entering as defending champion and coming off a worry-free preparation.
“I play down my chances just because I don’t think a 36-year-old should be a favorite of a tournament,” Federer said Sunday on the eve of the year’s first Grand Slam tournament, “It should not be the case.
“That’s why I see things more relaxed, you know, at a later stage of my career.”
The 19-time major winner can afford to relax slightly longer, given the half of the draw that he shares with Djokovic doesn’t start until Day 2.
Top-ranked Nadal will get under way Monday night against Victor Estrella Burgos on Rod Laver Arena, where he lost the final in five sets to Federer last year.
All four singles finalists were 30 or older here last year in what became a tournament for the ages, and three of them are back.
Only two men can hold the top ranking in the first week of February – Nadal or Federer – regardless of what No. 3 Grigor Dimitrov or No. 4 Alexander Zverev or anybody else does in Melbourne.
Federer returns in contrasting circumstances to his appearance in 2017, when he was coming off a six-month break for an injured left knee and had low expectations about ending a Grand Slam title drought that dated to Wimbledon in 2012.
“This year I hope to win the first few rounds and get rolling hopefully, whereas last year I was just hoping to win,” a match, Federer told his pre-tournament news conference Sunday.
“It was more of a ‘Let’s see what happens’ kind of tournament, maybe similar to what Novak or Stan (Wawrinka) or others are going through this year.”
Six-time Australian Open winner Djokovic has been sidelined for six months with an injured right elbow, returning with a remodeled service motion.
Wawrinka, the 2014 champion, has also been out of the game since Wimbledon after surgery on his knee. Nadal, who won the French and U.S. Open titles last year, has had a limited preparation restricted to a couple of exhibition matches last week as he recovers from a sore knee.
Williams, Stephens lose
In her first match at the Australian Open since a Williams sister was guaranteed to win the title, Venus Williams lost in the first round to Belinda Bencic and ensured it cannot happen in 2018.
Venus lost last year’s final to younger sibling Serena, who clinched an Open era-record 23rd major but hasn’t played a Grand Slam tournament since because of her pregnancy and the birth of her first child. The 6-3, 7-5 loss for Venus Williams was her first in five career meeting with Bencic, who lost to Serena Williams in the first round here last year.
No. 13-seeded Stephens was serving for the match in the 10th game of the second set but dropped her serve. She was outplayed in the tiebreaker and in the third set.
It always shaped as a tough opener for Stephens, who hasn’t won a tour-level match since her Grand Slam breakthrough triumph at the U.S. Open last year.
Three other Americans went out in earlier matches, with 10th-seeded CoCo Vandeweghe losing to Timea Babos 7-6 (4), 6-2, 12th-seeded Julia Goerges extended her winning streak to 15 matches with a 6-4, 6-4 win over Sofia Kenin, and No. 19 Magdalena Rybarikova beating Taylor Townsend 6-0, 7-5.
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