PREVIEW-Federer relishing challenge of defending title the hard way

LONDON, June 23 Sun Jun 23, 2013 6:25pm BST

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LONDON, June 23 (Reuters) - There are few players who would welcome the prospect of facing Rafa Nadal, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic in succession but Roger Federer is made of sterner stuff than most.

The Wimbledon champion will stride confidently onto Centre Court to face Victor Hanescu on Monday, 10 years after winning the first of his seven titles here, and says he is not casting a wary eye beyond the Romanian for what lies in wait.

The opening day's action will also feature Nadal and Murray, after the tennis fates conspired to group three of the game's dominant quartet in the same side of the draw.

The remaining member of that elite group, Djokovic, will keep his powder dry until Tuesday, and is a likely final opponent for whoever battles through.

"It was never supposed to be easy winning grand slams," the Swiss, who is eyeing another title to surpass Pete Sampras and William Renshaw as the most decorated man at the All England Club, told reporters on Sunday.

"I'm ready for the challenge. I like tough draws. I don't shy away from them...

"I have a very difficult draw with Rafa being in my quarter... If you want to win the tournament here, you have to beat the best. That's what I'm here for."

The lopsided draw was thrown up because French Open champion Nadal endured a seven-month injury absence following last year's Wimbledon, leaving the Spaniard fifth in the rankings behind compatriot David Ferrer.

Nadal, Wimbledon champion in 2008 and 2010, begins his campaign in the less popular surroundings of Court One against Belgium's Steve Darcis to make way for home hope Andy Murray on Centre.

Federer, who won his first title of the season at Halle last week, resisted any temptation to query Nadal's seeding, choosing to talk tough instead.

"For me, it's not even worth the talk because it is what it is," the 31-year-old said. "It's not like he's unseeded. He is seeded within the top eight.

"He is seeded, so you don't face him in the first round. Quarter-finals are still a long way away."

Murray, last year's beaten finalist, faces Germany's Benjamin Becker after women's number three seed Maria Sharapova's match against France's Kristina Mladenovic.

The Briton is fuelled with hope following a brilliant year that included a straight-sets gold-medal victory over Federer at the Olympics and a U.S. Open title won in a punishing five-set encounter with Djokovic.

A back injury ruled him out of the French Open, handing him a lengthier preparation than his rivals for the short grasscourt season, while victory in the final of the Aegon Championships at Queen's confirmed he is in top shape.

Federer reduced Murray to tears by winning last year's final but singled the Briton out as the outstanding grasscourt player heading into the championships.

"For me he seems like maybe most natural on this surface. But then the other guys are already Wimbledon champions, Rafa and Novak. Ferrer's in the top four. He's also very good on grass," said the third-seeded Swiss.

"But to me Andy sort of stands out a little bit over the others."

The women's game has been given an extra edge after Sharapova and defending champion Serena Williams became embroiled in a tetchy row on the eve of the championships.

The Russian has been kept apart from Williams in the draw meaning the two rivals will not get the chance to settle their differences on court until at least the final.

World number two Victoria Azarenka is in Sharapova's half and begins her campaign on Monday with a Court One clash against Portugal's Maria Joao Koehler. (Reporting by Toby Davis; editing by Pritha Sarkar)

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