LONDON - As he has six previous times, Roger Federer will open Wimbledon today as the defending champion, stepping onto Centre Court for the first match of what he hopes will be another two-week stay at the All England Club.
It's an honor reserved for the men's titleholder. That scheduling perk is also where any hint of preferential treatment for Federer comes to a halt. Because of the way the draw came out, Federer could have to defeat Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray before even getting to the final.
"I'm ready for the challenge," Federer said. "I like tough draws. I don't shy away from them."
Federer's quest for a record eighth Wimbledon title begins against Victor Hanescu of Romania.
Murray also plays today, wrapping up the day's action on Centre Court against Germany's Benjamin Becker. Nadal, who comes in with a stretch of nine straight appearances in tournament finals since returning from his knee injury, faces Belgium's Steve Darcis on Court 1.
Sitting back watching it all will be top-seeded Novak Djokovic, who is on the opposite side of the draw and, on paper, has the easiest path to the final. No. 4 David Ferrer is the biggest roadblock on his side of the bracket.
"I think it's going to be a great (day) for tennis," Djokovic said with a smile.
He's the 11-10 favorite at the London sports books and will open Tuesday barring rain, which is not in the forecast for most of the first week.
Third-seeded Federer's tough draw, to say nothing of his age (31) and his less-than-inspiring 2013 season makes him something of a long shot this time at Wimbledon. He's listed at 9-1 behind fifth-seeded Nadal (9-2), second-seeded Murray (7-2) and Djokovic.
Then again, grass is considered Federer's best surface and the lone tournament he has won this year came this month on grass at Halle, a tuneup in Germany that Federer has won six times.
"The more you play on it, the more you learn about it," Federer said. "Today I know what it takes, which is a good thing. The excitement is the same. Still hungry and wanting to win and wanting to prove how good I can play."
Sounding at times like a fan of Murray's during his 45-minute news conference, conducted in English, French and Swiss-German, Federer conceded that as he entered his final against the Scot last year, he wondered if it was, in fact, Murray's time to finally break through at a major. Federer fought off Murray for a four-set victory to extend his record Grand Slam title haul to 17.
Murray then came back four weeks later at the All England Club and beat Federer in the Olympic gold-medal match. The Scot then beat Djokovic in the final at the U.S. Open to finally win his first Grand Slam trophy.
"I was happy with the way I played, but I was happy with the reaction that Andy showed, as well," Federer said, referring to the aftermath of last year's Wimbledon final. "Because in previous years, the one time I beat him in the Australian Open final, he went on a sort of a bit of a disappointing run after that. That wasn't the case after Wimbledon (last) year. He actually got much stronger. That's why he increased his chances now by winning big tournaments."
Murray might not be favored, but he certainly will be the fan favorite. No British man has won Wimbledon since Fred Perry in 1936.
Murray said the way he lost to Federer at Wimbledon last year - playing aggressively, not sitting back waiting for things to come to him - put him in a better frame of mind for the rest of the season and his eventual breakthrough.
"A combination of that final and the way I played in it, and also having the Olympics to look forward to, I think that was the period that changed me ... changed my mindset a bit," he said.
Like Federer, Murray finds himself on the "tough"' side of the draw. Nadal's seven-month absence because of a left knee injury dropped him in the rankings and accounted for his No. 5 seeding, his lowest since he was unseeded for his Wimbledon debut in 2003. Nadal is one spot behind Ferrer, even though he beat his fellow Spaniard in straight sets in the French Open final.
"I am No. 5 in the world today, so the rankings say"' it is no longer a discussion, Nadal said. "It is completely fair that I am No. 5."'
Nadal, a two-time Wimbledon champion, faces a possible quarterfinal against Federer. The winner of that could play Murray in the semifinals.