Roger Federer prefers to think of Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic as the favourites for the Australian Open title, despite entering as defending champion and coming off a worry-free preparation. "I play down my chances just because I don't think a 36-year-old should be a favourite of a tournament," Federer said Sunday on the eve of the year's first Grand Slam tournament, "It should not be the case.
"That's why I see things more relaxed, you know, at a later stage of my career."
The 19-time major winner can afford to relax slightly longer, given the half of the draw that he shares with Djokovic doesn't start until day two. Top-ranked Nadal will get underway Monday night against Victor Estrella Burgos on Rod Laver Arena, where he lost the final in five sets to Federer last year.
All four singles finalists were 30 or older here last year in what became a tournament for the ages, and three of them are back. Serena Williams beat her older sister Venus Williams in the final to capture an Open era-record 23rd major here last year but decided against defending her title because she didn't have enough time to recover from health issues after a complicated childbirth in September.
Venus Williams is seeded fifth and is the second match scheduled on centre court to get her 77th major underway with a challenging opener against Belinda Bencic. She's 4-0 in career head-to-heads against 20-year-old Bencic — who reached a career-high No. 7 ranking in 2016 and who helped Federer win the Hopman Cup title for Switzerland earlier this month — but is coming off an abbreviated preparation that included a loss in the second round to eventual champion Angelique Kerber at the Sydney International last week.
At 37, Venus Williams among the top contenders at Melbourne Park. Others in action on Monday include seventh-seeded Jelena Ostapenko, who meets Francesca Schiavone in a match featuring current vs. former French Open champions, No. 2-ranked Caroline Wozniacki, who opens against Mihaela Buzarnescu, and U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens against Zhang Shuai.
Simona Halep is the No. 1 seed in the women's draw, and one of six women who can hold the No. 1 ranking at the end of the Australian Open.
Halep, who has had back-to-back first-round exits on her last two trips to Melbourne Park, opens on day two against Australian wild-card entry Destanee Aiava.
Only two men can hold the top ranking in the first week of February — Nadal or Federer — regardless of what No. 3 Grigor Dimitrov or No. 4 Alexander Zverev or anybody else does in Melbourne. Federer returns in contrasting circumstances to his appearance in 2017, when he was coming off a six-month break for an injured left knee and had low expectations about ending a Grand Slam title drought that dated to Wimbledon in 2012.
"This year I hope to win the first few rounds and get rolling hopefully, whereas last year I was just hoping to win," a match, Federer told his pre-tournament news conference Sunday. "It was more of a 'let's see what happens' kind of tournament, maybe similar to what Novak or Stan (Wawrinka) or others are going through this year."
Six-time Australian Open winner Djokovic has been sidelined for six months with an injured right elbow, returning with a remodelled service motion, and 2014 champion Wawrinka has also been out of the game since Wimbledon after surgery on his knee.
Nadal, who won the French and U.S. Open titles last year, has also had a limited preparation restricted to a couple of exhibition matches last week as he recovers from a sore knee. None of that makes them any less of a threat to Federer.
"Rafa, with the year, that he's had, and Novak with the six titles he's had here, even if it's unknown how he's feeling, they could very well be the favourites, too," Federer said. "If you're in the draw, you give yourself a chance. That's what happened to me last year — all ended up way better than I thought it would, as you know."