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Federer's pursuits to headline 2009

After so many tournaments, and so many years, as the man everyone was after in tennis, Roger Federer enters 2009 as the one doing the pursuing.

Federer is chasing Pete Sampras, hoping to tie, then break, his record of 14 Grand Slam singles championships. And, for a change, Federer is chasing Rafael Nadal, hoping to reclaim his No. 1 ranking and Wimbledon supremacy.

Some, such as U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe, don't think Federer will wind up back atop the rankings at year's end. And some, such as Sampras himself, figure it is a matter of when — not if — Federer will hold major trophy No. 15.

"It's exciting for the sport — at my expense, I guess, but I'm OK with it," Sampras said in a conference call Thursday. "I'm just sort of waiting in the wings here ... for him to break that record."

As the new tennis season opens in earnest Monday at the Australian Open, Sampras will not be the only one keeping an eye on Federer. And there are several other intriguing plot lines and players for fans to track in tennis this year:

When will Maria Sharapova play again?

It isn't quite clear when she will return from the torn rotator cuff tendon in her serving shoulder, although an entry on her Web site makes it sound as though it could be within a month — and the WTA says she is entered in the indoor tournament in Paris that begins Feb. 9.

Sharapova is not defending her title in Australia, extending an absence from competition that dates to July, leaving tennis without one of its top players — a three-time major title winner, a former No. 1 — and one of its most marketable and attention-drawing stars.

Will one of the Williams sisters — or anyone for that matter — dominate the women's game?

The best siblings in tennis history split the last two major titles of 2008: Venus beat Serena in the Wimbledon final for her seventh Grand Slam title, then Serena beat Venus in the U.S. Open quarterfinals en route to her ninth major championship.

But for the most part, last season was as wide open at the top as it's been in quite some time. Jelena Jankovic finished the year at No. 1 — but she has yet to win a Grand Slam title. Another Serb, Ana Ivanovic, won the French Open and made her own brief stay at No. 1, but she's been struggling more recently.

Four players could be No. 1 after the Australian Open: Serena Williams, Jankovic, Dinara Safina or Elena Dementieva. And the revolving door might just keep turning all season long.

"Women's tennis has never seen greater parity and depth at the top than we have now," tour CEO Larry Scott said in a telephone interview. "We'll need to see if (ranking) positions will change hands regularly at the top of the game throughout the year or if someone pulls away from the pack."

Who and what else should fans look for in women's tennis?

For the first time, the women's tour will allow in-match coaching at all of its events (though it's not been approved by the Grand Slams), "an innovation designed to make our sport more TV-friendly," Scott said.

He made a point of changing his tour's calendar — the year ends sooner, for example, with the season-ending championships coming in October for the first time — and has made no secret that he envisions a joint men's and women's tour some day.

"To the degree we present tennis as "women's tennis" and "men's tennis," separately — different marketing, different communications — we're making it more difficult to get attention," Scott said. "We're making it more difficult for our fans to follow."

It will be worth noting how he and the ATP's new boss, former Nike executive Adam Helfant, work together.

Who are the youngsters to watch?

Scott spoke about what he called "great bench strength" on his tour, mentioning five young players who are not yet household names but could be by year's end: Agnieszka Radwanska of Poland, Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark, Victoria Azarenka of Belarus, Alize Cornet of France, and Dominika Cibulkova of Slovakia — all teens, all currently ranked from 10th to 19th.

On the men's tour, seven of the eight players who reached the U.S. Open's fourth round on Nadal's half of the draw were under 24, a group that included Sam Querrey of the United States, Kei Nishikori of Japan, Gael Monfils of France and Juan Martin del Potro of Argentina.

All should make more progress in 2009.

What will Nadal do for an encore? What about Novak Djokovic? And will Andy Murray make the top trio a quartet?

First, Nadal established himself as the greatest clay-courter of his generation. He's moved on, though, to making a case as the best clay player in history, thanks to four French Open titles in four trips to Roland Garros. And, thanks to his epic, five-set, too-dark-to-see-at-the-finish victory over Federer in last year's Wimbledon final, there are bigger things at stake for the Spaniard.

Next on his "To Do" list: win a Grand Slam title on hard courts.

Djokovic, meanwhile, wasted another chance this week to pass Federer and move up to No. 2 in the rankings. After breaking through at the 2008 Australian Open, the question becomes how he will fare as he goes after a second major title.

And Murray's confidence and skills appear on the rise, as evidenced by his debut Grand Slam final at the U.S. Open and his recent streak of wins over Federer.

"You could make a case for Murray being the favorite in Australia, based on the last six months," McEnroe said.

Indeed, some oddsmakers did make the Scotsman the favorite for Melbourne — something Federer scoffed at a bit.

—Where does this all leave Federer?

His air of invincibility might be gone, but the Artful Roger showed in winning his 13th major title at Flushing Meadows in September that he's got plenty of skill left.

"In a way, he's not going to put as much pressure on himself in the other tournaments. He had that three-year run where he averaged five losses a year. Those days are clearly over — that he's going to win every tournament or be in the finals of every tournament," McEnroe said in a telephone interview. "But he's certainly going to gear himself up for the majors, a little bit like Sampras did, a little bit like Agassi did. It's going to be more difficult for him to get back to No. 1 — I don't think that's going to happen."