Which Federer will show up?

1/17/2009 - Tennis
Julian Finney/Getty Images

After the first week of men's tennis, only three players had perfect 5-0 records and a fresh tournament title, but no one really believes Andy Murray, Marin Cilic or Radek Stepanek will run the table this season. Still, heading into Monday's Australian Open, an intriguing question already hangs over Melbourne Park.

His name is Roger Federer.

The last time we saw him on the major stage, it was the return of the king in New York. Federer, after suffering his first 0-for-3 Slam start since 2002, erased a relatively dreary, illness-ravaged season with a straight-sets victory over Andy Murray. It was the 13th major championship for Federer -- who has just one fewer than all-time leader Pete Sampras -- and it restored faith in Federer's command of his game.

But after the events of last week's tournament in Doha, Qatar, it's impossible to know whether that vindicating victory in the U.S. Open represents the rule of dominance we have come to expect or the exception in a new age of tennis.

Not only did Federer lose to Murray for the fourth time in five matches -- the fifth time in six matches if you count the exhibition in Abu Dhabi a week before -- but the steely Swiss star also seemed to lose his composure. Amateur psychologists had a field day with his agitated body language after he dropped the last two sets and failed to shake hands with the chair umpire following a 6-7, 6-2, 6-2 defeat in the semifinals.

"He doesn't let too many things get to him," Murray said afterward. "But when I have watched him play [Rafael] Nadal, I have seen he can get frustrated because he is so used to winning."

"When I managed to break him in the [second set], I saw that he was frustrated. It was not that surprising."

Federer, for his part, was uncharacteristically terse in his postmatch interview. When British writers asked him whether Murray would be his chief competition for the Australian Open crown, Federer answered, "No," adding he was more concerned about the entire field.

In fairness, it should be pointed out that Nadal and Djokovic, Federer's peers in the ATP World Tour's top three, also lost in their first tournament of 2009. The difference is that Federer is 27 years old, while his main rivals -- Nadal (22 years old), Djokovic (21) and Murray (21) -- are far younger.

History tells us the age of 27 on the men's side is hardly a death sentence when it comes to winning major titles. Sampras won three majors after his 27th birthday (Wimbledon in 1999 and 2000, and the 2002 U.S. Open) and reached five finals. Late bloomer Andre Agassi won five of his eight majors after his 27th birthday and reached eight finals.

But neither player faced the quality of depth we see at the top of today's game.

Both Sampras and Agassi had great physical gifts, but their mental powers were what distinguished them in the crucible of major tournaments. When Federer won three of four Grand Slams in 2004, 2006 and 2007, he shared his predecessors' ability to focus intensely for seven best-of-five matches in two weeks. If his movement was affected by that bout of mononucleosis and the inability to train hard in December 2007 and February 2008, Federer's motivation should be at an all-time high after losing the No. 1 ranking for the first time in five years.

It is worth noting that Federer, who is seeded No. 2 behind Nadal, has won his past two major tournaments (the 2008 U.S. Open and 2004 Australian Open) when he has been seeded second.

Federer has been largely quiet during the offseason, working diligently as he always does in Doha. But before last week's tournament, his comments seemed to border on cockiness.

"For me, honestly, ranking two, three, four, five, 25, it doesn't really matter a whole lot," Federer said. "I expect 2009 to be a good year, and for various reasons I am under less pressure, too. I have been dominating for several years, and obviously I think I can do it again.

"I have a very strong technique. I am mentally and tactically also quite strong. I have that ability to decide to how much should I attack and defend."

Federer backed up those comments in his first three matches of the year. He converted four of five break points in beating Potito Starace, a credible player, in 48 minutes. Andreas Seppi was the second casualty. Then, in the quarterfinals, Federer saved four set points against Philipp Kohlschreiber to win in straight sets. Federer was trailing 3-6 in a second-set tiebreaker but closed with a vintage flurry, hitting five consecutive winners to lock it down.

Going forward, Federer will play only two clay warm-ups (Rome and Madrid) before the French Open, the only Grand Slam he hasn't won. Last year, he played four clay events. Playing a limited schedule seems to be a concession to Nadal, who won the last four titles at Roland Garros and hammered Federer in last year's final, losing only four games. Federer's lighter clay schedule should leave him fresher for Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, where he has reached a combined 10 consecutive finals.

Federer also has signed on for the Davis Cup. He is expected to play his first tie with Swiss teammate Stanislas Wawrinka against the Americans in Birmingham, Ala., in early March.

One of his goals would be to regain the top ranking, Federer said in Qatar. But this will be problematic. Only one player in the 36-year history of the ATP World Tour rankings regained his No. 1 ranking the following year after losing it: Ivan Lendl in 1989.

"Another is to win at least one more Grand Slam," Federer said. "Every Grand Slam I win will be more meaningful to me. I have been dominating the field for the past several years. 2008 [was] a good and bad year, but that has not changed my perspective.

"I have many more good moments in my career and certainly cannot be written off by anybody."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.