Open shapes as David versus Golliath - Sports News - Fanatics - the world's biggest events

Open shapes as David versus Golliath

By Darren Walton 10/01/2008 11:58:21 AM Comments (0)

Long-time nemesis David Nalbandian and an untimely stomach bug loom as Roger Federer's greatest threats as the Swiss superstar chases yet more tennis history at Melbourne Park.

Fresh from another record-setting season, Federer is bidding to become the first man in the 40-year professional era to snare three straight Australian Open crowns.

Andre Agassi (2000-01), Jim Courier (1992-93), Ivan Lendl (1989-90), Mats Wilander (1983-84), Johan Kriek (1981-82), Guillermo Vilas (1978-79) and Ken Rosewall (1971-72) all went back-to-back but none managed to complete the hat-trick.

A wrist injury denied Agassi the opportunity in 2002 and now - barring a major boilover - only illness or the resurgent Nalbandian look capable of breaking Federer's amazing dominance.

Like only Kryptonite could stop Clark Kent, Nalbandian and the mystery virus that has denied Federer vital match practice on the newly-laid Plexicushion courts being used at the Open for the first time have been able to bring down tennis's own superman in recent times.

Federer, who last year became the first player ever to reach all four grand slam finals in back-to-back seasons, insists he will shake the virus and be fully fit for the Open come Monday.

"Otherwise I would have left (Melbourne) already," he said.

"But I hung around and I definitely think it's going to turn for the good and I'll be 100 per cent, really, before the tournament starts."

And he will need to be, for Nalbandian is moving in for the kill.

In an ominous end to 2007, the dogged Argentine became the first player to defeat Federer and world No.2 Rafael Nadal in the same tournament twice, accomplishing the unprecedented feat at the Madrid Masters and two weeks later at the Paris Masters.

Tellingly, the last man to complete such a double was Marat Safin in 2004 - two months before the Russian proceeded to dump Federer from the semi-finals en route to collecting the Australian Open trophy.

Nalbandian also beat world No.3 Novak Djokovic in Madrid and became the first player to upstage both Federer and Nadal in finals.

At the time, Nalbandian was unseeded in both tournaments but posted six wins in total over top-10 opponents, having reached just one quarter-final all year.

Nalbandian suffered a back spasm on arrival in Australia, but is confident it won't hamper his Open.

"It's just bad luck but I have four days before the Open so I think I will be okay," he said.

Nalbandian said playing Federer brought the best out of him.

"I like to play against him. I think we both enjoy playing each other," he said.

"It's motivation - he's the No.1 in the world and he just lost a few matches in the year, so it's nice every time you go on court and play against him. He's at a great level."

The South American's stirring late-season revival clearly caught Federer by surprise.

"I don't know what the hell he's (been) doing at the other tournaments," the world No.1 said after Nalbandian squared their career series at 8-8.

Nalbandian (four times), fellow Argentine Guillermo Canas (twice) and Nadal (eight times) are the only other players to have conquered Federer more than once since the brilliant Swiss assumed the top ranking in 2004.

But with the injured Canas out of the Open and Nadal never having found his game in Australia, and also under a fitness cloud, bookmakers are wary of only one man, with Nalbandian the only player apart from Federer under double-figure odds.

"While most people think the status quo will continue and Federer will start the season with another slam, we're not so sure," said Lasseters' Gerard Daffy.

"Federer clearly has a health problem and he clearly has a problem with Nalbandian."

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