|Federer is chasing a record 16th grand slam title in Melbourne [GALLO/GETTY]
The first grand slam event of the season is only days away, and Roger Federer faces a challenging path to the final as he seeks to extend his record grand slam haul to 16 at the Australian Open in Melbourne.
The Swiss champion is set to face 36th ranked Russian Igor Andreev in the first round.
In their previous meeting at the 2008 US Open, Andreev took Federer to five sets, and should Federer win, he could face home favourite Lleyton Hewitt, Marcos Baghdatis or 11th-seeded Frenchman Gilles Simon in the fourth round, as well as a potential quarter-final against in-form Russian world number six Nikolay Davydenko.
Rafael Nadal seems to have a smoother route to the last eight as he sets out to defend the title he won last year.
The world number two was paired with low-ranked Australian Peter Luczak but may face a third-round hurdle against big-serving American John Isner, who knocked Andy Roddick out of the US Open last year.
New year, new start
Last year, Federer finished his last match in Melbourne Park in tears after a five-set final loss to Nadal cost him a chance of equalling Pete Sampras' record of 14 career Grand Slam singles titles.
In the wake of that defeat, he won his first French Open title to equal Sampras' mark and complete a career Grand Slam of all four majors.
He went on to add to the Grand Slam record and regain the No1 ranking by outlasting Andy Roddick in the Wimbledon final 16-14 in the fifth set.
But just on the cusp of a third consecutive major, he was upset in the US Open final by Argentine Juan Martin del Potro, ending the Swiss player's run at five straight titles in New York.
The win was a boost for del Potro, who displaced Andy Murray at No4 last week to ensure he will avoid the top three players at least until the semi-finals at Melbourne Park.
Federer didn't count it as a real setback, either.
"Last year, I had a problem at the start of the season with my back,'' he said.
"But I feel fine now because I have been practicing enough to feel confident of winning.''
In 2009, Federer lost to Murray in Doha, Nadal in Melbourne and to Djokovic at Miami in March.
Then as Nadal struggled with injury, Federer found his rhythm.
"I got better and better as the season went on,'' Federer said.
"I was able to bounce back and was on a roll. I can do it again. That's a good feeling to have.''
Murray has been drawn into the same section as Nadal and on a tough half of the draw that also includes del Potro and No7 Andy Roddick.
|Henin could meet Clijsters in an all-Belgian quarter-final [GALLO/GETTY]
In the women's draw, four-times champion and top seed Serena Williams opens against Poland's 71st-ranked Urszula Radwanska to start what appears to be a relatively trouble-free run to the quarter-finals.
However, Russian fifth seed Elena Dementieva will need to be on her best form early on if she hopes to match or improve on her semi-final run last year after being dealt a possible second-round encounter with former number one Justine Henin.
The return of another Belgian from a premature retirement has bolstered the field at the Australian Open and created a compelling women's draw.
Henin, who has won seven Grand Slam singles titles and quit in May 2008 while holding the No1 ranking, is only one tournament into her comeback, but is hoping to emulate Kim Clijsters' successful return to the majors.
The Belgian reached the Brisbane International final earlier this month against fellow countrywoman Clijsters in her first tournament back from retirement, and should have too many weapons for compatriot and first-round opponent Kirsten Flipkens.
Henin rallied from a set and a break down, then wasted two match points in a dramatic, seesawing encounter that Clijsters won 6-3, 4-6, 7-6 (6).
"I'm so proud of what we did on the court,'' Henin said.
"I didn't play a tournament in 18 months and I've been able to compete with really one of the best players in the world.
"It was a drama from the beginning to the end.''
Clijsters agreed the Belgian pair "set the bar pretty high for ourselves for the rest of the year.''
Should she continue through the tournament, Henin could set up a mouth-watering quarter-final against either French Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova or Clijsters, who won the US Open on her own comeback last year.
Maria Sharapova is also in the mix this year.
Sharapova won the 2008 Australian Open, but was unable to defend her title last year after right shoulder surgery kept her off the tour for almost 10 months.
Despite all the challengers aiming for her title, Serena Williams considers her sister Venus, seeded sixth, her main competition.
They are seeded to meet in the quarter-finals. Serena is 13-10 against her older sibling in WTA Tour matches, including victories last year in the finals at Wimbledon and the season-ending tour championship.
When Serena Williams takes the court, however, the world's No1 player believes she's really only competing against herself.
"You know, I don't care who I play. Whenever I play someone they play their best,'' she said this week en route to the Sydney International final.
"So whoever I play, believe me, they're going to play like No1 on that particular day against me for whatever reason.''
The Australian Open starts on Monday.