Covering all bases, Federer hires Roche

THE BALTIMORE SUN

MELBOURNE, Australia - His solo act fell one troublesome clay court short of perfection at the Grand Slam events in 2004. So imagine what Roger Federer can do with one of the finest minds in the game at his disposal.

The newest member of Federer's entourage is legendary Australian coach Tony Roche, who once guided Ivan Lendl and Pat Rafter. Roche will work with the No. 1 player in the world at selected events, starting with Federer's title defense at the Australian Open, which starts here tomorrow.

Last year, going it alone, Federer won three of the four Grand Slam tournaments, failing only in the French Open, in which he lost to three-time champion Gustavo Kuerten of Brazil in the third round. He hasn't lost a final since 2003 and has won 21 consecutive matches.

"He's like Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan right now a little bit," said Brad Gilbert, the former coach of Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick. "It's up to the rest of the guys to try to stop him. [People] always complain where's the next champion? And when you do get somebody that wins everything, they think it's boring. Or he doesn't have an adversary because he doesn't have a rival yet."

Federer will play Fabrice Santoro of France in the first round and is in the same quarter of the draw as 29th-seeded Taylor Dent and No. 8 Agassi. Dent, though, withdrew from a tuneup event in Sydney because of the flu and Agassi pulled out of an exhibition in Melbourne because of an injured hip. (Tests Friday showed there was no muscle tear, according to tour officials.)

Agassi is scheduled to play a qualifier in the first round, as is Dent. No. 2 seed Roddick, playing in his first Slam since dismissing Gilbert and hiring Dean Goldfine as his coach, is in the other half of the draw along with No. 3 Lleyton Hewitt of Australia, No. 6 Guillermo Coria of Argentina and No. 7 Tim Henman of Great Britain.

Injuries have hit hard in both the men's and women's draws. Mark Philippoussis of Australia is hurt, as are defending women's champion Justine Henin-Hardenne, 2004 finalist Kim Clijsters and 2001 and 2002 champion Jennifer Capriati.

The biggest concern on the women's side is the health of former champion and top seed Lindsay Davenport, whose preparations took a hit when she came down with bronchitis last week, forcing her to withdraw from the warm-up event in Sydney.

She wasn't helped by the draw, either. Davenport is scheduled to play veteran Conchita Martinez of Spain in the first round. Martinez is 6-0 against Davenport in Grand Slam events, including 3-0 in the Australian Open. In the same half of the draw is No. 8 Venus Williams, who also drew a potentially difficult opponent in the first round, Eleni Daniilidou of Greece.

In the other half of the draw are No. 2 Amelie Mauresmo of France, No. 4 Maria Sharapova of Russia, No. 5 Svetlana Kuznetsova of Russia and No. 7 Serena Williams. If form holds, Kuznetsova and Sharapova will meet in the quarterfinals and Williams will play Mauresmo.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Australian Open

What: First leg of Grand Slam

When: Tomorrow to Jan. 30

Where: Melbourne Park

Surface: Rebound Ace hardcourt

TV: ESPN, ESPN2

Top seeds: Roger Federer and Lindsay Davenport

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