Courts colour Federer's case for defence

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The Independent Online

When you are hurtling through the record books the last thing you want is to slow down. Roger Federer has won his 12 Grand Slam titles more quickly than any man in history and is rapidly closing in on Pete Sampras's all-time record of 14, but since arriving here for the Australian Open the world No 1 has been forced to put on the brakes.

A stomach virus has seriously disrupted Federer's preparations and when he finally made it on to the practice court the Swiss was not entirely pleased with what he found. A new playing surface, Plexicushion, has replaced Rebound Ace at Melbourne Park and while Federer, ever the perfectionist, has found the courts easy on the eye they are too slow for his liking.

"I prefer the blue over the green," he said yesterday. "It looks nicer on TV and it's nicer on your eyes when you play. The stadium looks more friendly. The green was much too green. It was a very strange place to play, especially when the lights were on."

If Federer disagreed with Marat Safin on the aesthetics – "Why so blue?" the Russian asked last week – he echoed the thoughts of many other players on the kinetics. "In my opinion the surface is a little bit too slow. Everything is slowing down. Everybody's complaining already that we're playing too much from the baseline. We'll only see more of that here in Australia, that's for sure."

Federer agreed with complaints about Plexicushion's effect on the balls. "If you play behind the baseline for five minutes and rally like crazy, the balls will all be fluffed up after a few rallies and it's going to be very slow. It depends on how you play. I think it's a good thing that you have the choice to play aggressively, in which case the balls will stay quick. If you decide to play a bit further back you can slow the balls down throughout the match."

He added: "I think they've changed the surface too many times here in the last few years, so they'd better keep this one for the next 50 years."

Federer has played in the last 10 Grand Slam finals in succession – a record – and in 14 of the last 18, winning 12 of them but, if he is to claim his 13th major here, he will have to match the 1995 exploits of Andre Agassi, who was the last man to win in Melbourne without any preparatory matches. The Swiss had planned to play in last week's exhibition tournament at Kooyong, as he did before his victories in 2004 and 2007, before illness intervened.

While Federer, who is normally a picture of health, insisted that he had fully recovered from the stomach virus that had laid him low, it remains to be seen whether having to take a week off at such a critical time will take its toll. Not that an upset stomach troubled him on his last appearance at a Grand Slam event, when Federer beat Novak Djokovic in straight sets in last year's US Open final despite having been under the weather in the previous few days.

Federer was planning his first daytime practice for today, just 24 hours before his opening match against Argentina's Diego Hartfield, after requesting a Tuesday start. When he did get back on court at the end of last week he limited himself to short evening hits with Serevin Luethi, Switzerland's Davis Cup captain, having preferred to rest during the day.

"It's been different to my preparations for some other Grand Slams," Federer admitted. "It's always tough in Australia because you don't have many matches coming into it, but I'm very much used to not playing for four or six weeks and then coming in and playing a big tournament.

"I've been playing sets for the last couple of days, which was very important for me. I'm happy with my form. I practised very well in Dubai before coming here, which definitely created a good base for this fortnight. That's what I feel when I get back on the practice courts. Tennis comes back very quickly."

Federer is generally a master of preparation. He won his fifth successive Wimbledon title last summer despite not playing in a warm-up competition on grass and, although he said yesterday that early matches at Grand Slam tournaments were "never easy", the evidence is to the contrary. He has not dropped a set in the first round of any of the last 16 Grand Slam events.

His rivals, moreover, do not expect the disruption to have any material effect on his performance.

"He played late November, when he won the Masters Cup in pretty good fashion, especially the semi and the final," Lleyton Hewitt said. "He's that good a player that he can work his way into the tournament and get confident and maybe not play his best tennis in the first couple of rounds, but he'll still be able to get through. I don't think it's going to affect him a whole lot." When Andy Roddick was asked about Federer's health the American joked: "I can safely say none of us here are worried about Roger's preparations for the Australian Open. I think I'll sleep OK." He added: "If there's anybody who can take care of himself and play his way into form, it's Roger."