MELBOURNE, January 13- A resurgent Roger Federer is again the man to beat in next week's Australian Open as he shoots for his 16th Grand Slam crown in the year's opening major.
Just when his rivals appeared to have closed the gap on the Swiss, the world number one had another stellar season in 2009, winning his first-ever French Open and a sixth Wimbledon title.
The 28-year-old great became the all-time Grand Slam leader in men’s tennis in the process, passing the 14 won by American Pete Sampras.
Federer was duly crowned the International Tennis Federation (ITF) champion for the fifth time and finished the year-end ATP top-ranked player for the fifth time in six years.
Underlining his incredible consistency, Federer has only missed playing in one of the last 18 Grand Slam finals, his sole slip-up coming when he lost to Russian Marat Safin in the semi-finals of the 2008 Australian Open.
When it comes to determining the likely winner of this year’s tournament it is hard to go past Federer.
"If I’m healthy this year I can win many more tournaments and that could also help get me more confidence, more momentum," he said ahead of the Open.
Federer will be chasing his fourth Australian Open victory and takes a 47-7 match record into the Melbourne event.
If there is to be an upset it looks likely to come from defending champion Rafael Nadal, the 2008 champion Novak Djokovic, British hope Andy Murray or Federer’s conqueror at last year’s US Open final, Argentine Juan Martin Del Potro.
Nadal, who toppled Federer from the number one ranking in August 2008 and held it for 46 weeks until handing it back to the Swiss last July, admits to suffering a crisis of confidence heading into his title defence.
He has had increasing problems with arthritic knees, suffered from an abdominal injury, and reportedly been affected by the recent break-up of his parents’ marriage.
"I have had a lot of problems in the head," Nadal said. "But that’s life. You have to accept problems and you have to come back. I am trying. We will see what happens in the next six months."
Nadal, who will be seeded to face Federer in the 2010 Australian final, holds an impressive 13-7 record over him, but a disrupted 2009 season may count against the Spaniard over the next two weeks.
Djokovic finished third on the year-end rankings by a big space ahead of Del Potro and Murray, and has shown a liking for the court and the conditions of Melbourne with his win here two years ago.
"Last year I ended my title defence in the quarter-finals with the retirement (against Andy Roddick)," Djokovic said.
"That was what you would call the ugliest way that I could have finished that tournament.
"I always try to set up in the best possible shape and form for the Grand Slams and I have all the reasons to believe I can perform my best tennis this year."
Del Potro has leap-frogged Murray into the fourth ranking spot and although his Australian Open record is modest with just a quarter-final appearance at three attempts, his epic win over Federer at Flushing Meadow last year earns him respect.
Murray is burdened with the national expectation of becoming the first British player to win a Grand Slam since Fred Perry’s 1936 US Open triumph.
"I think I’m ready to win it," Murray said at last week’s Hopman Cup in Perth.
"I feel like I’m serving well, moving well and playing the ball better than I have done for a long time at the back of the court and I am volleying well."