Losses to Soderling and Davydenko raise more questions Roger Federer has already served out platefuls of humble pie to those who dared to suggest that his sublime powers were on the wane two years ago when a debilitating illness and a series of fitness problems led to a comparatively barren spell in his relentless pursuit of major honours. The completion of an elusive career Grand Slam at last year's French Open followed quickly by a sixth Wimbledon title which enabled him to overtake Pete Sampras's long-standing record of 14 slams, represented the most defiant message that suggestions of an imminent demise were grossly exaggerated.
However, the Swiss goes under the microscope again in Australia over the next three weeks after his lacklustre start to the new campaign. An unexpected Abu Dhabi exhibition defeat by Robin Soderling, a Swede whom he had beaten comfortably in all of their previous 12 meetings, was followed by a surprise semi-final exit from the Qatar Open in Doha at the hands of an admittedly inspired Nikolay Davydenko.
Until losing to Davydenko at the ATP Tour finals in London in November, Federer also had the Russian's number but he found himself being comprehensively outplayed on the way to a straight-sets departure from Qatar. At this stage of the season players are looking for a careful balance between getting in sufficient match practice for Melbourne and avoiding peaking too soon. Only Federer knows how committed he was against Davydenko but the alarm bells were certainly ringing.
The world No 1 admitted the need for improvement when he arrives in Australia but otherwise did not appear too concerned. "I have to get my unforced errors down, but apart from that I moved well and I didn't think my performance was too bad," he said. "Nikolay played well when he needed to play well. He got ahead and got the momentum and that helped him. Then he played the big points well and deserved to win."
He neglected to mention the poor quality of his serving at the Khalifa Tennis Centre. Normally a reliable weapon which brings him many cheap points, it was made to look ordinary on this occasion as he found himself facing an unusually high number of 10 break points in the two sets. Federer saved seven of those but was also uncharacteristically slack with his returns and managed only a solitary break of the impressive Davydenko delivery.
A year ago, Federer was denied a fourth Australian Open title in an epic final against Rafael Nadal. Tennis enthusiasts would love to see hostility resumed between the world's best two players at Melbourne Park on January 31. On the basis of evidence pre- sented in Abu Dhabi and Doha in the first few days of 2010, the world No 1 has to work harder to make that happen than the world No 2. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org