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Monday, January 7, 2013
Fed, Murray begin year of transition

By Kamakshi Tandon
Special to ESPN.com

It's another hustling, bustling start to the Grand Slam season. Roger Federer and Andy Murray kick off their Down Under campaigns Tuesday, potentially headed toward yet another showdown in the semifinals. But to hear them talk, they could still be on vacation.

Both sound very much at ease coming to the Australian Open. After returning to No. 1 and winning his 17th Slam last year, Federer has little left to prove. He comes in without any warm-up events, having decided to make a later start to the season after playing some exhibitions in South America last month. "It's been very relaxing, the last 1½ months," he said before the tournament began. "Not many appearances, no press almost. Just focusing on getting ready mentally and physically, really.

"Now I feel fine. I arrived really early, two, three days earlier than in the past, which has been quite nice. I feel like I have an extra two, three days of a cushion, which is honestly good to have before a Slam sometimes."

U.S. Open champion Murray is also feeling relaxed, no longer dogged by questions about whether he'll ever win a Slam. "I think for most tournaments, yeah, it feels that way. Not just Grand Slams," he said. "I kind of maybe always felt like I was having to prove something every time I went on the court, because I hadn't won a Slam. You know, even when you win a Masters Series, people still asked me always about the Slams. So it's nice just to kind of not have to worry about that anymore."

But take this too far, and they're quick to point out that being at ease doesn't mean they're taking it easy.

"I'm very revved up. That's not the issue," Murray said. "I didn't at any stage say that I was 'very relaxed.'

"I feel more relaxed than I have done the week before a Slam. ... I think that's going to kind of be natural.

"But, yeah, I didn't work hard in Miami, you know, in the offseason to come in and just not be focused or too relaxed or anything like that. I didn't train over there for four weeks to come here and put in a really bad performance."

Federer, meanwhile, says that at this stage he needs the break more than the matches. "But, of course, maybe somewhere you do feel more pressure going into the first round," he acknowledged, before adding, "I have a lot of experience. I feel like if I'm playing well in practice today, at this age, I know where my game's at, there's not going to be negative surprises because a lot is in your racket. You do serve, you do move the way you do, and that nobody can take away from you.

"Of course, nerves play a role. Playing well at the right moments only comes with playing enough matches. The year never really stops. It sort of resets. Not like I haven't played for six months. I'm ready to go and eager. That to me right now dominates."

That's why Federer is pacing himself, physically and mentally, in what he describes as "more of a transition year." The 31-year-old has reduced his schedule, playing fewer tournaments to give himself more time for recovery, training and practice.

It's something he had hinted at doing even in 2011, but last year, likely tempted by the opportunity to take back No. 1 and break Pete Sampras' record for most weeks at the top, Federer actually increased his schedule. It paid off, but at a price. The fall was disappointing by his standards, and he felt short of practice. "So every tournament I play, I want to put myself in the position to win it," he said of this season.

In addition to not playing during the first two weeks of the season, Federer is also missing Dubai and Miami, which are usually regular stops for him.

However, he stresses, it's not a sign of waning motivation. In fact, it's all designed to allow him to play longer.

"I think it's always a bit of a test for me going into the practice season. Am I hungry and motivated to wake up, go on the practice courts for hours? There was not one problem," Federer said. "For me, that was good news. I was eager to improve my game, change it up a bit from all the tournaments I played these last few years now to go on the practice court and try to improve my game there. I also go into the gym and get stronger again.

"I enjoyed it. I think as long as that's the case, that means I love it very much so."

It's a mark of both his endurance and consistency that Federer is playing his 53rd straight major and is on course to tie Wayne Ferreira's record of 56 by the end of the year.

But his attention is now on the one at hand. Despite his lack of match practice, Federer will have to get in gear quickly after being handed a tricky draw. First up is Frenchman Benoit Paire, whose funky game won't give the No. 2 seed much of a chance to work his way slowly into the match, even though it should make for entertaining viewing. Next up could be Nikolay Davydenko, who seems to have rediscovered his form, and then possibly two young guns in succession: Bernard Tomic and Milos Raonic. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is a potential quarterfinal opponent, and all that could be before getting to Murray in the semifinals.

Murray, by contrast, is ramping up. With his first major title out of the way, he's ready to focus on winning more tournaments through the year and perhaps challenging for No. 1. "I think it will help me throughout the rest of the year, as well, on the tour," said the No. 3 seed. "I just won't be worrying and thinking about the Slams all the time; I can focus on all of the events that I'm entered in."

Murray should also have an easier time than Federer in the first few rounds this week. Though big-hitting Robin Haase could be a little tough to handle out of the gate, there are few potential threats until Juan Martin del Potro in the quarterfinals. Murray's biggest question mark might be his reaction to stepping onto the court at a major as a Slam champion for the first time.

"I have no idea how I'm going to play here," he said. "I have no idea how I'm going to feel when I go on the court. ... When I play my first match, I could be unbelievably nervous. I don't know what effect it will have on me until I'm put in that situation."