Champ Federer bids to fight off title rivals

Wimbledon, Greater London: Switzerland’s Roger Federer leaves after a training session at the All England Tennis Club in Wimbledon, southwest London on the eve of the start of the 2013 Wimbledon Championships tennis tournament. AFP PHOTO

LONDON: Roger Federer will aim to prove he is still the king of Center Court on Monday as the ageing Swiss star starts his Wimbledon defense under intense pressure from his rivals for the All England Club crown.

As the defending men’s champion, Federer has the honor of playing the opening match on Wimbledon’s main show-court against Romania’s Victor Hanescu.

It will be an emotional moment for the 31-year-old as the year’s tournament marks 10 years since he won his first title at the grass-court Grand Slam.

But Federer has little time to reflect on past glories because his reign as Wimbledon’s top dog will be put to the test like never before by Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray.

While Federer still commands tremendous respect after amassing 17 Grand Slam titles, it is hard to escape the feeling that the Swiss is a fading force.

He has won just one Grand Slam in his last 13 attempts and his victory at the ATP Tour event in Halle last week was his first title in 2013.

In the circumstances, it is no surprise to hear Federer take a cautious approach when asked if he can surpass Pete Sampras with a record eighth Wimbledon success.

“I haven’t thought about it a whole lot, to be honest,” Federer said. “I’ve got a tough draw with Rafa in my quarter.

“We’ll talk about eight if I’ve won the tournament, but not right before. I know the road is hard, but it is possible. I’m looking forward to the challenge.”

In contrast, Nadal, a potential quarterfinals opponent for Federer, arrives with his confidence sky-high.

After suffering one of the most shocking losses of his career at Wimbledon last year, when Lukas Rosol stunned the Spaniard in the second round, and then taking the rest of the year off to recover from a knee injury, Nadal appeared to some to be past his best.

But the 27-year-old has banished the doubters in emphatic fashion this year, winning Masters events in Indian Wells, Rome and Madrid before extending his remarkable dominance at the French Open by taking the clay-court crown for the eighth time.

Two-time Wimbledon champion Nadal, who faces Belgium’s Steve Darcis on Court One on Monday, said: “When you are coming back from a situation that I did, after being injured for seven months, it’s true that you have a special motivation, because you feel that you lost a year for things that you cannot control. That really motivates me.”

World number one Djokovic won Wimbledon in 2011 and the Serb has every reason to think he can triumph on grass again now he has banished the memories of a painful French Open semifinals defeat against Nadal earlier this month.

“The consolation is that I have Wimbledon coming up and there is no bigger motivation than playing in the most prestigious tournament in the world,” Djokovic said.

Meanwhile, Murray, who plays Germany’s Benjamin Becker on Center Court on Monday, once again carries the weight of a nation’s expectations on his shoulders as he looks to end Britain’s 77-year wait for a homegrown male winner at Wimbledon.

Murray was beaten by Federer in a tearful final here last year, but since then he has won the US Open and an Olympic gold medal.

In the women’s event, defending champion Serena Williams is the firm favorite to maintain her vice-like grip on the sport’s major prizes, but the American will make her challenge against a backdrop of controversy.

Serena has won 74 of her last 77 matches, an incredible run that has earned her titles at Wimbledon and the US and French Opens, as well as an Olympic gold.

Yet the 31-year-old’s brilliant play has been over-looked this week after she sparked a war of words with Maria Sharapova by commenting on the Russian’s relationship with Grigor Dimitrov, a Bulgarian rumored to be a former boyfriend of Serena.

With Williams scheduled to meet world number three Sharapova in the finals, this week’s verbal volleys might be only the start of an explosive two weeks in south-west London.

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