By Patrick Johnston
(Reuters) - A disappointing end to 2012 left Roger Federer's critics writing his tennis obituary, but the Swiss is confident he can win more grand slam titles after arriving in Melbourne refreshed and refocused following an extended break.
While Federer's main rivals for a fifth Australian Open title, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, have been getting matches under their belt in Australia, the 31-year-old opted for the practice courts and family time to keep his mind and body fresh.
Federer, who is looking to add to his record 17 majors, skipped his traditional warm-up events in the Middle East and has not played a competitive tournament since losing a pulsating final to Djokovic at the ATP Tour Finals in November.
After playing only a couple of exhibition matches, Federer arrived in Melbourne last week aiming to become the first man since Andre Agassi in 1995 to win the Australian Open having not played a warm-up tournament.
For Federer, long touted as the greatest men's player of all time, the weight of history has never proved too problematic but for his critics, and some fans, there are fears that world No.1 Djokovic and U.S. Open champion Murray are now too strong.
Juan Martin del Potro also recorded wins over Federer in Basel and London at the end of the Swiss' campaign, and his stuttering end to 2012 left many believing an 18th grand slam title on Rod Laver Arena was beyond him.
After a sumptuous performance at Wimbledon in July gave him his 17th grand slam title and returned him to world number one, Federer was blown away by Murray in the Olympic final on the same Wimbledon turf, prompting American great John McEnroe to say the Swiss "looked his age".
Perhaps listening to some of the comments that he fatigues quicker led Federer to curtail his 2013 season, dropping some events to give his body longer to recuperate.
"Longevity is the word here that I am looking for and that is what I am striving for this year in 2013 to hopefully keep on playing for many years," Federer told reporters in Singapore last week.
"I love the pressure of playing the new generation who are coming up and improving quickly and I have to work harder than to stay at the top, or with the best," added Federer, who has had only three grand slam final appearance in the last three years.
With old foe Rafa Nadal absent for the January 14-27 Australian showpiece, Djokovic is the clear favourite to win a third consecutive title. Not that Federer has followed the Serbian's success too closely.
"I do believe that Novak goes in as the favourite for this year's Australian Open after, did he win the last couple of years or just last year? I'm not sure, but he has won two or three already plus he has won the World Tour Finals," he said.
"He is probably the best hard-court player in the last couple of years.
"If I'm second favourite, fourth favourite or eighth or whatever it might be it doesn't change much for me. I know if I'm playing well I can win tournaments."
But having opted to only practice over the last few weeks, only Federer knows if he is playing well enough.
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)