Forum Spin Doctor
MELBOURNE, Australia - Roger Federer shook off some rust in a 7-6 (2), 6-7 (4), 7-6 (5) win over Radek Stepanek in a belated start to the season Wednesday that took longer and was hotter than he anticipated.
Stepanek, wearing a camouflage-style outfit of his own design, almost ambushed Federer in the first round of the Kooyong exhibition tournament.
After saving match point in the second set, Stepanek led 5-2 in the third-set tiebreaker.
But the top-ranked Federer rallied and won the next five points to finish off in almost 2 hours, 20 minutes as the temperature peaked above 96 degrees at Kooyong, the former Australian Open venue in the leafy suburban outskirts of Melbourne.
Federer next plays Marat Safin, who beat Argentina's David Nalbandian 5-7, 6-1, 6-2, in his return to the eight-man round-robin.
Nalbandian later withdrew because of knee soreness and was replaced by Fernando Gonzalez of Chile.
Defending champion Andy Roddick beat Tommy Haas 6-2, 6-3, a day after discovering that he would likely be without coach Jimmy Connors at next week's Australian Open because Connors' mother had died in the United States.
Roddick's next match is Friday against Scotland's Andy Murray, who beat Ivan Ljubicic 6-4, 6-2. Ljubicic beat Murray in the Qatar Open final at Doha last week.
Federer has started the previous two seasons with wins at Doha, but decided to skip that tournament this year to recharge after compiling a 92-5 record and winning 12 titles in 2006.
"Playing such a long match gives me a lot of information for what I could do better, and what's already in place," Federer said. "Concentration is the biggest factor. It's kind of tough to get into things entirely."
Federer said he felt better prepared mentally this year to defend his Australian Open title.
"I guess everything, match by match, it's going to get better - things I was happy with, things I wasn't happy with," he said. "But I knew that from the start, so I just tried to keep it together, not getting frustrated. In the end it was actually an OK match."
Federer dropped serve in each set and made some uncharacteristic double-faults, but conjured his best shots when most needed, including a trademark backhand winner down the line to start his roll in the last tiebreaker.
Despite the shaky start, Federer backed his decision to skip Doha.
"You have to look at the big picture - I needed a break," he said. "I wasn't really in the mood to play a tournament the first week of the year.
"I also wanted to have a life - have Christmas and New Years' and take it easy a little bit. For me, it was most important to come to Melbourne in the mood to win the Australian Open, not feel like it's a pain."
Stepanek, who has not played competitively since injuring his neck at Wimbledon and who became engaged to women's former No. 1 Martina Hingis last month, said getting so close to Federer was a boost for his confidence.
"In every set I had my chance ... but Roger just proved why he's the No. 1 player in the world," Stepanek said. "He played great shots when he had to, when it was getting tight."
Federer lost at Kooyong in the first round last year to Haas, then won his next two matches in the round-robin format and went on to win his second Australian Open singles title.
He won three of the four Grand Slam singles titles, losing the French Open final to No. 2-ranked Rafael Nadal.
Roddick, who lost to Federer in the U.S. Open final, said he doubts Connors will join him in Melbourne following the death this week of his mother and longtime coach, Gloria Connors. The funeral services are set for Friday.
"Regardless of what happens, he'll be watching the matches and we'll be talking," Roddick said. "Obviously I'd love to have him here ... but his influence isn't gone - he's still very much involved."