ANDY MURRAY the Australian Open favourite? Roger Federer was bemused.
Murray might be the recent nemesis of the dethroned Swiss champion, and the form player in the game, but the standout candidate for a title bigger than any Murray has won? According to whom, exactly?
"The bookies? Good for him. It doesn’t help him a whole lot," Federer, the world No.2 and triple Australian Open winner said at yesterday’s AAMI Classic launch at Kooyong. "I’ve been in that position before as well and didn’t make it.
"But look, he has put himself into a great position. He started off well, playing well in Doha, finished strong last year, but it still does surprise me that the bookies say that, because he has never won a slam. Novak [Djokovic] is the defending champion here. Rafa [Nadal] had an incredible season last year. I won the last slam of last season. It’s surprising to hear."
Murray has beaten Federer five times, apart from US Open final loss in September and their first meeting in 2005. His most significant recent win was at the Qatar Open in Doha last week.
They are rated joint Melbourne Park favourites by TAB Sportsbet at $3.50.
Asked about Murray’s improvement, Federer pinpointed the Scot’s ability to play at a high level, consistently.
"Before, he was very up and down," he said. "But I think he has shown now he is knocking on the door, he has been able to make his move, he is a good all-round player, he has good tactics, he has become very confident and you can see that every time."
Federer and Nadal have shared 14 of the past 15 grand slam titles, with only third-ranked Djokovic breaking the nexus when he triumphed in Australia last year. So is Murray ready to win a major title?
"Sure," said Federer, before qualifying his response. "He has put himself into a winning position, but still, winning a grand slam is a different animal. Not many guys have been able to win grand slams in the last years."
Federer returns to Australia as something other than the defending champion for the first time since 2006, and is ready to take his place in the Classic field after withdrawing late last year with what turned out to be energy-sapping mononucleosis. Also behind him is the back injury suffered late in the season.
Although within one title of equalling the grand slam record held by Pete Sampras, Federer claimed the pressure he had felt at the height of his domination about six or seven slams ago was now far less acute.
"Everybody was expecting me to win every single tournament I entered, almost. So that has gone away a little bit, which has been a bit of a relief actually," he said ahead of today’s opening round-robin match against Carlos Moya.
Federer arrived in Melbourne early on Monday, a day ahead of Nadal, and was quick to mention Murray’s barren grand slam status. A theme is emerging. The mind games have begun.