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FRENCH OPEN PREVIEW: Federer out of spotlight in Paris, while Novak thrust in it

Photo by Christophe Ena

Photo by Christophe Ena

PARIS -- It's been eight years since the last time Roger Federer was not seeded No. 1 or 2 at a Grand Slam tournament.

It's also been that long since he went more than 12 months without winning any major title.

With the French Open starting Sunday, top-seeded Rafael Nadal's pursuit of a record-tying sixth championship at Roland Garros and second-seeded Novak Djokovic's 37-0 start to the season are dominating the conversation.

The focus, for a change, is not on the third-seeded Federer, owner of a record 16 Grand Slam titles, including the 2009 French Open. And he sounds as if he is absolutely fine with that.

"This is definitely a year for me where I can come into this tournament with just a little less pressure than, let's say, the last six, seven years, really," said Federer, whose first-round match against Feliciano Lopez of Spain is scheduled for Monday.

Djokovic, who could face Federer in the semifinals, also is slated to play Monday, while Nadal's opening match will be Tuesday. Men in action Sunday include No. 7 David Ferrer and two-time major champion Lleyton Hewitt; 2009 French Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova and 2010 runner-up Sam Stosur are among the women on the Day 1 schedule.

"Last year, I was the defending champion. The year before -- and the years before that -- I was trying to win (in) Paris for the first time. So I've always had that big cloud hanging over, and the, 'Am I ever going to win the French Open?' question," Federer said. "This year, maybe they expect more from Rafa and Novak, and that could be a good thing for me -- and more pressure for them."

For their part, Nadal and Djokovic are more than willing to declare the other the man to beat in Paris.

Asked whether he deserves that label, Nadal rolled his eyes and shook his head and replied: "No. No, probably this year the favorite is Djokovic."

That was relayed to Djokovic, who smiled and declared: "I say he's the favorite."

Djokovic has won all seven tournaments he's entered this season and all seven matches he's played against Nadal -- whom he beat in clay-court finals at Madrid and Rome this month -- and Federer. The Serb also won his last two matches of 2010, meaning he's at 39 in a row overall.

So Djokovic is closing in on the Open era records for most victories to start a season (John McEnroe's 42 in 1984) and longest winning streak (Guillermo Vilas' 46 in 1977).

"I don't feel unbeatable," said Djokovic, whose two Grand Slam titles came at the 2008 and 2011 Australian Opens. "Nobody is unbeatable, even though I had an incredible run that keeps going."

Nadal, meanwhile, has won 38 of his 39 matches at Roland Garros, taking the title five of the past six years. One more trophy would match Bjorn Borg for most by a man in French Open history.

The Spaniard turns 25 during the tournament's second week, and if he wins, he would be the second-youngest man -- trailing only Borg -- to collect his 10th Grand Slam trophy.

Federer entered Wimbledon in 2003 seeded No. 5 and without any major titles on his resume. He won that tournament, and by the Australian Open in January 2004, he was seeded No. 2. A second Grand Slam championship there moved Federer up to No. 1 in the rankings.

He has won at least one major title for eight consecutive seasons -- matching a mark previously held by Borg and Pete Sampras -- and completed his career Grand Slam by winning at Roland Garros two years ago.

During that stretch, Federer reached a record 23 straight Grand Slam semifinals and never went more than two major tournaments in a row without winning a title.

Until now.

After winning the 2010 Australian Open, Federer was upset in the quarterfinals of last year's French Open by Robin Soderling. That was followed a month later by another quarterfinal exit at Wimbledon, against Tomas Berdych. Soderling and Berdych went on to lose in the finals to Nadal.

Then Federer lost in the semifinals at the U.S. Open in September, and again in the semifinals at the Australian Open -- both times to Djokovic. Already overtaken at No. 1 in the rankings by Nadal, Federer has been at No. 3, a spot behind Djokovic, since March.

Federer enters the French Open with a 28-7 record and one title in 2011. He'll turn 30 in August; in the Open era, 10 men have won a Grand Slam singles title after their 30th birthday.

That includes Sampras, who was 31 when he beat Andre Agassi in the 2002 U.S. Open final, Sampras' final match on tour.

"Whenever Roger loses a few matches, people think the world's coming to an end. I don't look at it like that. Even when I lost a few matches, people would say, 'Oh, he's down. He should stop,'" said Sampras, who won 14 major titles. "Great players are unique in that way that they have this inner belief about themselves, that they're just better than anyone."

"I think Roger's walking out there still feeling like he's the best player in the world," Sampras continued. "He understands some guys have stepped up here, and he's not going to dominate like he once did. It was physically probably impossible for him to maintain that pace. But I don't see any decline in Roger."

If Federer does, he won't let on publicly.

And he's not bothered by not being considered one of the men most likely to win the title in two weeks.

"If in Wimbledon, for example, I was not among the top four or five favorites, then it would be a big change," Federer said. "But in the French Open, it's always more or less the same."

He lost to Nadal in the French Open semifinals in 2005, then the finals each of the next three years, before avoiding his rival in 2009 and beating Soderling for that title.

"I hope," Federer said, "I can put myself in a position to win this tournament again."