MELBOURNE • Not since their first meeting in the third round of the Miami Masters in 2004 have Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal met at such an early stage in a tournament.
It is why there is such intrigue over the possibility of a third-round match when the Australian Open draw is made today.
This is a rivalry that has provided some of the most memorable contests in the history of tennis, 21 of their 34 encounters coming in finals, but episode 35 may well be relegated to the round of 32 of a Grand Slam tournament, an illustration of their fading powers.
Federer, 35, returning after a six- month break with knee problems, will be the No. 17 seed, his lowest position at a Grand Slam. Nadal is 30 and, after his struggles for consistency owing to a series of niggling injury problems, is seeded No. 9.
As a result, this is one of the more eagerly-anticipated draws in recent years, with higher-ranked players hoping to avoid being in the same section as two of the all-time greats.
As recently as July, the 17-time Grand Slam champion Federer was one set from the Wimbledon final. The Swiss legend let slip a lead of two sets to one against the big-serving Canadian Milos Raonic, stumbling in a fall towards the end of the match that was to bring an early end to his season.
Having undergone the first surgery of his career in February on a torn meniscus in his knee, Federer took no chance of doing further damage. He did not resume full practice sessions on the court until November, when he started his pre-season training block in Dubai.
According to one of his close friends, the former world No. 2 Tommy Haas, that period of rest has helped him to refresh mentally and could extend his career for another two years.
"Being away also sometimes makes you realise how much more you want it, even more than before," the German said.
Federer and Nadal have accepted that a reduction in fitness work is necessary as they grow older.
Under the guidance of long-time physical trainer Pierre Paganini, Federer did not hit the gym on consecutive days as he plotted his return to the tour. Nadal has focused more on tennis-specific drills as he focuses on making particular improvements to his game.
The Spaniard is raring to add to his 14 Grand Slam titles at the Australian Open, which starts on Monday, having recently made an addition to his coaching team in former world No. 1 Carlos Moya.
Also keen to do well at Melbourne Park is world No. 2 Novak Djokovic.
The 29-year-old Serb joined Roy Emerson as the most successful men's champion at the Australian Open last year, when he beat Andy Murray for his sixth title.
Seven, however, has a nice sound to it, the former world No. 1 said yesterday.
"007, Why not? Maybe this is the year. Seven in 17. I'm not a numerologist but it sounds good," a laughing Djokovic told the Australian Open website on Thursday. "In terms of my feelings of coming to Melbourne, the last five or six years it has been pretty much the same. I am very pumped to do well."
At the Sydney International, the warm-up tournament for the Australian Open, Johanna Konta blasted Eugenie Bouchard 6-2, 6-2 in straight sets yesterday to set up a final with Agnieszka Radwanska, who also crushed a tired Barbora Strycova 6-1, 6-2.
THE TIMES, LONDON, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
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