By Patrick Johnston
SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Weeks of practice and family time have left Swiss maestro Roger Federer fit and refreshed ahead of what the 17-times major winner believes could be an unpredictable Australian Open in the absence of old foe Rafa Nadal.
Federer, 31, opted to skip his usual Australian Open warm-up tournaments in the Middle East this year and instead spent it working on his game and parenting, all part of a shorter 2013 schedule that he hopes will extend his career but has left him hungry for matches.
"I am very happy that the year is starting. It's a bit of a different preparation for the Australian Open this year but I'm confident I am mentally refreshed, which I am, and physically I am fine and that I will play a good Australian Open," Federer told reporters in Singapore on Friday.
"I have been practicing really hard the last few weeks and didn't play a leading up tournament this year just because I thought practice is very important for me coming up in the next year, year-and-a-half."
The world number two's last match on Tour was back in November when he was defeated in the final of the ATP Tour Finals in London by Serbia's Novak Djokovic.
With only some exhibition matches in South America since, some questioned the move to go straight to the Australian Open but Federer, who won the last of his four Australian Open titles in 2010, said rest was required.
"It is key to always have a healthy schedule, it is difficult to do as they (the tournaments) are spread out basically from January to October-November," he said.
"It is hard to say I'm going to take one or two months off and practice hard while there are 10 to 15 new tournament winners on the Tour and you are sitting at home."
Federer said he had never been scared to take such decisions.
"For me, in the long run, I want to stay healthy and enjoy what I am doing, I want to have fun, I want to be excited and motivated coming back to the Tour," he explained.
"For that I really need to get away from it all, which I have done for the last two or three weeks now after an incredible busy South American trip and an incredible busy year so it is important for me to have the family time."
While the Swiss seemingly manages his career like clockwork, avoiding injury and ensuring he is always suitably refreshed to add to his record grand slam haul, the same cannot be said of Spaniard Nadal.
The 11-times grand slam champion has not played since losing in the early rounds at Wimbledon last year as his troublesome knees continue to require rest, forcing a late withdrawal from the Jan 14-27 Australian Open.
Federer said the continued absence of Nadal was an opportunity for one of the other players in the men's draw to break the Federer-Djokovic-Nadal domination, like Briton's Andy Murray did at the U.S. Open in September.
"I think it is an exciting one, we have had four different grand slam champions in the last year and everybody seems in great shape," he said, acknowledging that defending champion and world number one Djokovic was the favorite.
"Obviously with Rafa not around it is unfortunate, we would love to see him back so we were all hoping he was going to come back, but it creates opportunities for many other players with one less guy who normally runs through 90 percent of the guys so it is an interesting Australian Open."
(Reporting by Patrick Johnston, editing by Alan Baldwin)