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Friday, 13 January 2017 10:31 AM GMT
Federer facing one of career's sternest challenges
Despite being handed a gentle start to the Australian Open, Federer was left potentially needing a career-first to record his 18th Grand Slam title... READ MORE

The tennis gods have clearly missed Roger Federer.

It is six months since the 17-time Grand Slam champion last played a competitive tournament, when he reached the semi-finals at Wimbledon before pulling the plug on the year to rest his wounded left knee.

And they were kind to the 35-year-old yesterday as they cleared his early path in the draw for the Australian Open, pitting him against two qualifiers in the opening rounds and, crucially, steering him clear of a first-week meeting with Andy Murray or Novak Djokovic.

But when you're seeded 17th, there's only so long you can avoid stern challenges, and Federer faces tough tests from the third round onwards – including a possible quarter-final against Wimbledon champion and No.1 seed Murray. 

“It’s very strange seeing the number 17 next to Roger’s name,” said Paul Annacone, the Swiss’s former coach after the draw at Melbourne Park on Friday. “(But) it’s so exciting for tennis to have Roger and Rafa (Nadal) back.

“For Roger, he’s always been so good at preparing for this event so I don’t see it being a problem that he hasn’t had a ton of matches, but it’s difficult playing a qualifier because they’ve played a few matches. It’s a little bit of a different mindset."

It is seven years since Federer last won the title here and as he puts his knee through its paces, it may take him time to hit full fitness and find 100% sharpness.

The 35-year-old, who says he hopes to play on for another two or three years if he stays injury-free, could play Czech 10th seed Tomas Berdych in round three, with fifth seed Kei Nishikori likely to be in his path before a potential quarter-final with Murray.

Federer returned to the court in the recent Hopman Cup exhibition event in Perth, where he won two of his three singles matches and looked sharper than many expected.

“He’s playing very well and he’s one of those players who historically can get himself to a very high level very quickly,” Annacone said. “He doesn’t need a load of tennis to get his confidence back. It’s just about getting his fitness level up.”

Stil, never before has Federer won a Grand Slam title after beating five top-10 players in a row, which he will need to do if matches go according to ranking.

Victory in around a fortnight's time would surely rank among the greatest acheivements in his illustrious career.

In addition, Federer is also defending 720 rankings points from last year's Australian Open, and failure to reach the semi-finals could potentially see him drop out of the top 20, depending on how those around him perform in Melbourne.

Encouragement, though, should come in the form of Pete Sampras' seeding when he won his final Grand Slam title at the 2002 US Open. That year, the American great was also seeded 17th, but battled past the likes of Tommy Haas, Andy Roddick and Andre Agassi to record a historic triumph.

The odds are nevertheless against Federer, but this is a tournament he has won four times, and he holds positive head-to-head records against Berdych, Nishikori, Murray and Wawrinka.

Should he get into a groove, nothing can be ruled out.

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