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Federer under microscope in Dubai

Federer, holder of three of the four Grand Slam titles, will be subjected to even closer scrutiny than usual next week when he rejoins the tour for the first time since regaining the Australian Open title.

india Updated: Feb 26, 2006 17:34 IST
Agence France-Presse
Agence France-Presse

Roger Federer, holder of three of the four Grand Slam titles, will be subjected to even closer scrutiny than usual next week when he rejoins the tour for the first time since regaining the Australian Open title a month ago.

Federer's triumph in Melbourne was accompanied by a remarkable accolade from Rod Laver, who believes the 24-year-old Swiss tennis genius is now capable of winning all four Grand Slam titles, as he himself last did in the early seventies.

Federer is only three months from an attempt upon the French Open title which should reveal how close to the truth Laver— the only man ever to twice win all four Grand Slams in a year— really is.

And although Federer's return to action in defence of the Dubai Open title on hard courts, rather than Parisian-style clay, the Australian's words will make people view Federer with a more microscopic perspective.

But he is adept at deflecting this.

"My first goal for 2006 is maintaining my world number one ranking," Federer insists. His chances of that have been helped by injuries sidelining his two most capable rivals, Rafael Nadal and Marat Safin.

Nadal, the world number two from Spain, is playing only his second tournament since a foot injury which he sustained while winning a thrilling Masters Series final from two sets down against Ivan Ljubicic in Madrid in October.

There have been moments, Nadal admits, when the injury reduced him to tears because of the pain and the fear that his career might be threatened. The 19-year-old's comeback, starting in Marseille two weeks ago, was modest and brief, requiring him to withdraw the following week in Rotterdam.

But Nadal comes to Dubai hoping to build towards the form which enabled him to play such a great final against Federer on hard courts in Miami almost 11 months ago, when he led by two sets and 5-2 in the final set.

"I'm better every day, but still not quite there," says Nadal, who has been training with both ankles taped and begins against Paul-Henri Mathieu, the French Davis Cup player. "I've started the season late and my highest priority is still to recover completely."

Former world number one Marat Safin has been away from competition even longer, and has selected the Dubai Open to make a comeback after six months off.

The success of this return could be hugely important, because the charismatic 26-year-old Russian is by no means sure he can rescue his career from long-lasting knee problems.

Safin has not won a title since beating Federer and going on to win the Australian Open 13 months ago, and has not competed since Cincinnati in August.

It was then that he confessed he was afraid of an operation for fear of being out of the game for a year and unable to get back.

"The injury wasn't serious," Safin claimed more recently. "But unfortunately I stopped playing too late. After Wimbledon I was advised to stop for two or three months but I did not take the advice."

Since then he has slipped to 50 in the world, and the Dubai draw has been unkind as well, pitting him against his Davis Cup colleague Nikolay Davydenko, the world number six.

Federer has landed a similar coincidence, drawing a first round against his Davis Cup colleague, Stanislav Wawrinka.

Another coming to Dubai to help rescue his career is Britain's Tim Henman, who took a late wild card after discovering that his semi-permanent back injury prevented him competing in Marseille the week before last.

He played his third tournament of the year at Rotterdam last week but was beaten in the second round, which means he has not only lost his British number one spot to Andy Murray, but is at risk of slipping out of the top 50 or so who gain automatic entry to the smaller Masters Series tournaments.

First Published: Feb 26, 2006 17:34 IST