Men's Players Try to Catch Up to Federer

Saturday, January 15th 2005, 12:42 pm
By: News On 6

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) _ Andy Roddick, Lleyton Hewitt and Andre Agassi knew they needed to do something drastic. Roger Federer was winning practically every tournament, and the gap between him and everyone else in men's tennis was growing.

Roddick, ranked No. 2, switched coaches. He ended an 18-month association with Brad Gilbert that had produced his first major title, joining former U.S. Davis Cup coach Dean Goldfine and overhauling his practice regimen.

Hewitt, ranked No. 3, bulked up his upper body, hoping it might help him end a six-match losing string to Federer that included the final of the U.S. Open and season-ending Masters Cup.

``Roger has taken the game to a new level,'' said Hewitt, the former U.S. Open and Wimbledon champion who at one time led Federer 6-1 head-to-head.

Agassi tuned his 34-year-old body like never before, looking to gain whatever edge he could when he next meets the top-ranked Swiss player. Agassi, however, hurt his hip during a tuneup match against Roddick and it's unclear if he will play when the Australian Open begins Monday at Melbourne Park.

Federer won the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open among his 11 titles in 2004, becoming the first man since Mats Wilander in 1988 to capture three of the four majors in one season.

Adding another title last week at Qatar _ his 23rd _ he improved his winning streak in tour finals to 14 and stretched his winning run to 21 consecutive matches.

``To finish No. 1 and the way he did it is an incredible effort, but it's also become the standard that everybody is trying to push for,'' said Agassi, an eight-time major champion. ``I'm thankful for those that make us better, and Roger definitely does that.''

Federer is flattered by the attention, but he's not letting it distract him from his goal for 2005 _ start with an Australian Open title and finish with the No. 1 ranking.

``In a way, I enjoy it, to get so many compliments,'' Federer said. ``I had such a great season last year _ I guess like nobody had in 15 or 20 years _ so it's normal that right away everybody compares me to the all-time greats. Now it's up to me to prove it and to be up there for a long time.''

To remain on top, Federer decided he also needed to change. He worked with a coach for the first time in a year, spending two weeks in Sydney with former Australian Davis Cup coach Tony Roche. He thinks a few tweaks already have improved his game.

That's probably not what Agassi and company wanted to hear. After shedding 10 pounds to drop into the mid-160s and building his strength and conditioning, Agassi was primed for a shot at a fifth Australian title. Now he's at risk of having to join an injured list that includes former Wimbledon and U.S. Open finalist Mark Philippoussis and three of the top 10 women, and possibly more.

Top-ranked Lindsay Davenport was one of five players who pulled out of the Sydney International on Thursday. Davenport, who withdrew from this month's Hopman Cup to rest her injured knee, said she had bronchitis but expected to be OK.

``I've been sick all week. At some point you've got to stop. My energy level was about 30 percent,'' said Davenport, the 2000 Australian champion. ``Hopefully, antibiotics and rest will all help.''

Last year's champion, Justine Henin-Hardenne, and the runner-up, Kim Clijsters, didn't make it to Melbourne. Henin-Hardenne withdrew last weekend because of a knee injury. Clijsters has had a wrist problem for a long time.

Jennifer Capriati, who won Australian titles in 2001 and 2002, withdrew because of an ailing right shoulder that has troubled her since November.

On the plus side, 2003 champion Serena Williams is back after missing last year's Grand Slam opener and spending much of the season sidelined with injuries. She said she's ``really excited about the way things are going in my game _ it's a pretty big, open draw.''

She and sister Venus, who have won a total of 10 major singles titles, have been working together in Melbourne.

``I get to play Venus every day _ she's great to practice with because she's one of the best players out there,'' Serena said. ``She hits hard, she serves hard, she runs fast, she just does everything pretty much the best.''

There are four Russians in the top 10, all spurring each other on. Three of them won majors last season and one lost two finals at majors.

No. 3 Anastasia Myskina was the first Russian woman to win a Grand Slam tournament title when she beat compatriot Elena Dementieva at the French Open in June. Maria Sharapova defeated Serena Williams in the Wimbledon final, and Svetlana Kuznetsova beat Dementieva in the U.S. Open final.

``It's remarkable,'' Davenport said. ``I don't think any country has ever had so many players come up and reach the top of the game like they have.''

Myskina was upset in the first round by Chinese qualifier Shaui Peng in Sydney last week, but said it gave her time to adjust to conditions in Melbourne.

Sharapova, 17, beat Kuznetsova, Myskina and Serena Williams at the season-ending championships in Los Angeles to underline her ascent toward the top, but she hasn't played in Australia this season.

Russia's Marat Safin, who lost the men's final to Federer in Australia last year, hasn't played since losing three consecutive matches at the Hopman Cup but is ranked fourth and remains a big threat.

Roddick skipped his usual warmup tournaments to concentrate on practice and play in the Kooyong Classic, the annual exhibition tuneup.

``I've had a great training period with Dean, felt better than I have in a long time,'' he said. ``I'm happy with the team around me now. I'm very optimistic for 2005.''

Agassi, meanwhile, will continue to treat his hip, hoping that at this stage he's not reduced to watching Federer on TV. For most of his career, Agassi contended in the majors with Pete Sampras. Now it's Federer.

``I've played these guys on days when I'm convinced they're the best in the world,'' Agassi said. ``Both of them bring a phenomenal amount of weaponry to the tennis court. Both of them have an ability to make you feel like a spectator, so you have to make sure you're at your best.''

He's also certain there's more to come from Federer.

``Roger took a step last year toward accomplishing things that most of us only dream about,'' Agassi said. ``Pete had a long career and a great one, so I'm sure Roger has a lot more to look forward to.''