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Federer has Sampras' major record in his sights

MELBOURNE, Australia - It was after midnight and long after Roger Federer is accustomed to finishing work in the first round of the Australian Open.

No problem. He'd said he'd taken time to watch the sun set over Rod Laver Arena while he waited to start the last match on center court.

It was a far different prelude than to his challenging 2008 season, his leanest in four years in terms of Grand Slam titles.

The 27-year-old Federer commenced his quest for a 14th major to equal Pete Sampras' career record Monday with a 6-1, 7-6 (4), 7-5 first-round win over 35th-ranked Andreas Seppi of Italy.

It was a difficult opener, considering Seppi is only just outside the top 32 players who are seeded for the tournament.

Federer was sick and tired with mononucleosis this time last year, and that dogged him for months.

'I wasn't fit, I had hardly played any matches, had any practice,' he said. 'This year I had much more preparation and I feel I know where my game's at.'

After losing to Novak Djokovic here in the semifinals, then losing the French Open and Wimbledon finals and the No. 1 ranking to Rafael Nadal, Federer's confidence picked up when he won the U.S. Open.

Losing those cherished titles helped change his perspective. Helped him be more expressive.

'Maybe I'm a bit more relaxed,' he said. 'The times when you're No. 1 in the world, you put your head down, you try to win as many tournaments as possible. Maybe sometimes you forget to enjoy it.

'Maybe just today or the last six months, as well, after having a tough year, sometimes you can show more (emotion) because you've been through a tough time.

'I show maybe a bit more emotions, a bit more happiness, which maybe people didn't

see before.'

Seventh-seeded Andy Roddick took a more businesslike approach to his opening match, committing only 10 unforced errors in a 6-0, 6-2, 6-2 win over 31-year-old Swedish qualifier Bjorn Rehnquist.

Two of Serbia's biggest celebrities followed him on center court and another played at the same time on the adjacent show court.

Djokovic, the only player apart from Federer or Nadal to win a title in the last 15 majors, had to rally from service breaks in the last two sets - he was down 4-0 in the third - to oust Andrea Stoppini 6-2, 6-3, 7-5.

His fellow Serbs Ana Ivanovic and top-ranked Jelena Jankovic got through in straight sets on the women's side.

Ivanovic, runner-up last year, overcame an error-prone start to advance 7-5, 6-3 over 107th-ranked Julia Goerges.

'I don't expect myself to step on the court and play perfect tennis from very first moment,' said Ivanovic, sentiments the other Serbs shared. 'You just want to give yourself the best possible chance and give time to work yourself into the tournament.'

Jankovic, needing ice to cool down the soles of her shoes as temperatures topped 97 degrees, had 27 winners to four for No. 104 Yvonne Meusburger in winning 6-1, 6-3.

Jankovic holds the top ranking but has yet to win a major, something the Williams sisters have been proficient at with 16 between them.

Second-seeded Serena Williams, the reigning U.S. Open champion and winner each odd year at Melbourne Park since 2003, faces Yuan Meng of China today.

Sixth-seeded Venus, who won her fifth Wimbledon title and finished off 2008 by winning the season-ending tour championship, goes against Angelique Kerber of Germany.

Fourth-seeded Elena Dementieva, unbeaten in 10 matches this year and winner of the Beijing Olympic gold medal, plays Kristina Barrois.

Nadal starts his second consecutive major as the top seed in a night match against Christophe Rochus of Belgium, about the same time No. 9 James Blake is due to play Canada's Frank Dancevic.

Fourth-seeded Andy Murray, heavily backed in Britain after three wins over Federer since losing to the Swiss star in the U.S. Open final, gets under way against Andrei Pavel of Romania.

Murray's emergence has people talking now about the Big Four in men's tennis, elevating the 21-year-old Scot into the company of Djokovic, also 21, 22-year-old Nadal and Federer.

Roddick, who lost finals at Wimbledon to Federer in 2004 and '05 and at the 2006 U.S. Open, doesn't think he or anybody else could claim to be on the same level of the top for last season.

'They absolutely deserve to be the four that get talked about right now,' he said. 'The thing about sports is no one really remembers yesterday, and that's fair. You have to go out and prove yourself on a daily basis. I have no problem with that.'

Still, the 2003 U.S. Open champion said he wanted to earn his place back among the top contenders: 'I think I can.'

SideBar: Australian Open

MELBOURNE, Australia - A look at Monday's play at the Australian Open tennis championships:

WINNERS: Men: No. 2 Roger Federer, defending champion and No. 3 Novak Djokovic, No. 7 Andy Roddick, No. 8 Juan Martin del Potro, No. 10 David Nalbandian, No. 11 David Ferrer, No. 15 Stanislas Wawrinka, No. 16 Robin Soderling, No. 19 Marin Cilic, No. 20 Tomas Berdych, No. 21 Tommy Robredo, No. 23 Mardy Fish, No. 26 Marat Safin, No. 28 Paul-Henri Mathieu, No. 32 Philipp Kohlschreiber.

Women: No. 1 Jelena Jankovic, No. 3 Dinara Safina, No. 5 Ana Ivanovic, No. 7 Vera Zvonareva, No. 10 Vera Zvonareva, No. 11 Caroline Wozniacki, No. 15 Alize Cornet, No. 16 Marion Bartoli, No. 17 Anna Chakvetadze, No. 19 Daniela Hantuchova, No. 25 Kaia Kanepi, No. 26 Ai Sugiyama, No. 29 Alisa Kleybanova.

LOSERS: Men: No. 27 Feliciano Lopez; Women: No. 23 Agnes Szavay, No. 24 Sybille Bammer, No. 27 Maria

Kirilenko.

WEATHER: Sunny and hot, high of 97 degrees.

ATTENDANCE: Day: 42,426; Night: 14,443; Total: 56,869.

STAT OF THE DAY: 13 - years since her previous Grand Slam match for Japan's Kimiko Date Krumm, who lost her first-rounder to Kanepi.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: 'It's not like you can take a tournament and just move it. There's a million logistical things...' Andy Roddick weighs in on the annual debate regarding the timing of the Australian Open.