Federer eyes return to top

Marat Safin arrived at the Australian Open bloodied and bruised from a fight in Moscow. He left it with scars of a more emotional kind.

Safin is the latest victim of the newly revitalized Roger Federer juggernaut, as proof continues to mount that the former world No. 1 is getting back to his imperious best.

Federer swept Safin aside in straight sets, cutting down his old rival and disappointing the neutrals desperate to see a repeat of their epic 2005 semifinal, won by Safin 9-7 in the fifth set.

After a 2008 that saw his previously invincible form dip and push him down to No. 2 in the rankings, Federer is sizing up a return to the top this year.

Signs are that he is getting closer. The metronomic consistency that marked his rise to the summit of men's tennis is back, with few unforced errors and a stellar service game.

The energy and focus which seemed to be missing during the middle of last year are in place once more, and Federer has breezed through his first three matches in Melbourne without losing a set.

Next up in the round of 16 is Tomas Berdych, who should not be too stern a test for Federer, provided he repeats his form of the opening week. Yet the real tests lie farther ahead and will provide the most accurate indicators of the Swiss master's current state and ability to dominate this year.

Juan Martin Del Potro and Marin Cilic are two of the rising stars of the game, and the winner of that clash would love the chance to take down Federer (if he beats Berdych) in the quarters.

A repeat of last year's semifinal, in which Federer lost to Novak Djokovic, would be another tough challenge standing in the way of equaling Pete Sampras' record of 14 Grand Slam titles.

One of the topics of discussion in Melbourne has been how many Grand Slam crowns Federer can end up with by the time he finishes his career.

The French Open may always elude him - Rafael Nadal's dominance on clay is a mighty obstacle to overcome - but Federer will always be among the favorites at any of the other three Slams.

An astonishing 20 titles would not be out of the question. But that would require Federer to be at his absolute best. The next week will go some way to showing us whether that beast has returned.

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