Roger Federer, a rare loss to Andy Roddick notwithstanding, is the rage to chase down his third Australian Open title over the next fortnight.
The Swiss world number one, who has dominated men's tennis for three years, kicks off his title defence against German 83rd-ranked Bjorn Phau in the first round.
Only eight players in the Open era (post-1969) have successfully defended their Australian Open crown, the last being Andre Agassi in 2001.
Federer suffered a rare defeat to Roddick in Saturday's Kooyong Classic final here, but the American put it in perspective when he said he would gladly swap the Kooyong trophy for the Australian Open title.
The Swiss maestro is chasing his 10th career Grand Slam triumph and, if he reaches the January 28 final, it will be his seventh consecutive major final since 2005 Wimbledon. Only Australian Jack Crawford has a longer Slam sequence (seven), set back in 1933-34.
“It's going to be hard to repeat last year's season. I mean, I had a great last few years,” Federer said.
If Federer, is, as expected, going to play the final, that doesn't bode well for Roddick, 2005 champion Marat Safin and last year's finalist Marcos Baghdatis, who are all in the same half of the draw.
World number two Rafael Nadal is the man considered with the best chance to topple Federer. The 20-year-old Spaniard, who downed Federer in four finals last year, says he has recovered from a right thigh injury that forced him out of last week's Sydney International.
“I just try to play my best tennis here. But to play Federer, it's always the same. I need be in the final,” Nadal said.
“To win the final, I need to play very good tennis. I'm just thinking about the first round right now. If I win the first, we will see the second.”
Lleyton Hewitt, who lost to Safin in the 2005 final, back-to-back Sydney International winner James Blake, rising British teenager Andy Murray, world number three Nikolay Davydenko and Argentine David Nalbandian are all in Nadal's side of the draw, and away from Federer.
American power-server Roddick, now with Jimmy Connors, has struggled in Melbourne, often rolling through the early rounds before coming undone.
“There's a difference in my game since working with Jimmy,” Roddick said. “I'm playing more aggressively now.”
Baghdatis captivated last year's Open when, ranked 54, he knocked out Roddick, Ivan Ljubicic and Nalbandian - all top-10 players then -- to reach the final, where he went down in four sets to Federer.
“The final changed a lot of things for me. It made me more famous,” Baghdatis said. “You go on the court, everybody wants to beat you. It's tougher now. They know your game more.”
Safin may be ranked 26 but he has won and been twice runner-up in his last four trips to Melbourne, and has the game, power and ability. “I expect the same thing as I expected for the last eight years being here, try to win it,” Safin said.
Clijsters is the favourite
Kim Clijsters has emerged as the player to beat ahead of the first Grand Slam, with Maria Sharapova and Amelie Mauresmo snapping at her heels.
The Belgian, who retires from all tennis at the end of the year, has won the Champions Challenge in Hong Kong and the Sydney International in the lead-up to the tournament, signalling her intentions to go out with a bang. “I'm very happy with the way I've played. What I'm more happy with is that I didn't start the (Sydney) tournament playing great, but I still felt like I was improving, compared to Hong Kong,” she said. “I'm very focused on trying to win.”
The no-show of world number one Justine Henin-Hardenne has removed a key obstacle for Clijsters winning her first ever Australian Open, but plenty more remain. Defending champion Mauresmo shed her tag as the best player not to claim a major by winning here last year, when Henin-Hardenne walked off Centre Court with a stomach complaint midway through the final. “I think once you've tasted it, you want more. It is really what drives you — the emotions that you feel in these moments,” Mauresmo said. “I don't know what will happen this year or next year but I want to try again and win.”