Hewitt most heavily favored to contend

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Roger Federer comes into the Australian Open after a year that was the greatest single performance since Rod Laver won the Grand Slam in 1969.

Although my brother John McEnroe had a great year in '84, and Mats Wilander also won three Slams in '88, Federer was just so dominant (last season against the top 10 players he went 18-0 and did not lose one final). He's taken the game to another level. He's put the old school in a modern game. Everyone else is just trying to figure out a way to beat him.

Federer started off this season where he left off last year. He hasn't lost serve yet in 2005. So clearly, the difference at the moment between him and the contenders is as big as any I can remember. Even when Pete Sampras was dominating in the '90s, I can't remember him being such a favorite to win as Federer is right now.

There are three main guys who are trying to change that here: Lleyton Hewitt, Andy Roddick and Marat Safin.

Hewitt comes into this year with some solid match play after he won in Sydney and played until the quarterfinals of Adelaide. Hewitt finished last season as the second-best player in the world, even though Roddick finished the year as No. 2. Hewitt reached the finals of the U.S. Open and the Masters Cup and just had a little bit better second half of the year than Roddick.

Hewitt knew coming into a tournament here that expectations would be high. If we were in New York everybody would talking about a potential Roddick-Federer final; here it's all about can Hewitt beat Federer. Roddick's under the radar.

The court surface is quite a bit slower here than at the U.S. Open. That's a negative for Hewitt, who prefers a faster surface like that of the U.S. Open. Rebound Ace is a higher-bouncing surface, which makes it harder for him to generate pace. Still, he's been working out and looks good. He seems to be the most heavily favored contender, certainly from their perspective down here, and I can't disagree.

Roddick has played some exhibition matches to get ready. He's got a new coach, so there's some inconsistency there. He played in the finals of Davis Cup, so he didn't have as much of a break as he probably would have liked. He seems in excellent condition and is positive about his relationship with new coach Dean Goldfine. Roddick got a pretty good draw and should be able to play his way through. Roddick-Hewitt in the semifinals would be a great match. However, Roddick comes in with more questions. Hewitt has had a longer relationship with his coach and he's worked on his fitness to get a little more beef off his groundstrokes.

From a pure tennis strategic standpoint, Safin has the best game to match up head-to-head with Federer. Roddick's serve and Hewitt's groundstrokes are strong weapons against Federer, but Safin can do both. He can stay with Federer more from a shot-making standpoint. The questions is, can Safin stay with it mentally through the seven matches needed to win a major.

After reaching the finals of the Aussie last year, Safin disappeared until after the U.S. Open, winning a couple of Masters Series events. Safin has the game to overpower Federer with his serve and attack with his return, but mentally he hasn't proved to be as tough as Hewitt and Roddick. His potential meeting with Federer is in the semifinals.

Four-time Aussie Open champion Andre Agassi is due to play Federer in the quarterfinals. Agassi came in under a cloud with a minor hip injury. He got through his first match very well. Gil Reyes, his trainer, told me Monday that Agassi is stronger now and fitter than he was at 25. For a guy who is almost 35, that's pretty amazing.

Agassi decided to play another year, based in many ways on how well he played at the U.S. Open. Agassi gave Federer his toughest match at the Open -- taking Federer to five sets. It gave Agassi the reason at the end of last year to keep going.

The only negative for Agassi here is that he might have to play Federer in the quarters, when he could be the guy who most worries Federer in a match situation. It certainly would be fun to see.

Agassi knows he'd have to play his absolute best against Federer. He understands he has to put a little extra on every swing he takes against Federer. You could see it in his play against Federer at the U.S. Open. In that sense, I think Agassi would relish an opportunity to take on Federer.

The reason Hewitt put on muscle and Agassi trimmed down is that these guys all have the same goal -- to compete with Federer and keep him from having another year like the last.

Patrick McEnroe, a tennis analyst for ESPN, is a former professional player and the Davis Cup captain.