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Federer relishing 'family' reunion at Melbourne Park

By Ian Ransom

MELBOURNE (Reuters) - The 'extended family' of tennis, the thrust of competition and that winning feeling. Roger Federer missed them all during his six months away from the circuit and is relishing the prospect of rediscovering them again at the Australian Open.

The Swiss master had itchy feet during his layoff to rehabilitate a troubled knee, his longest break in a career blessed with few serious injuries.

He kept busy as a tennis statesman, cheering old rivals from the sidelines on social media while helping his greatest, Spaniard Rafa Nadal, launch his tennis academy in Mallorca.

He took hikes through the Swiss Alps and attended his first Formula One motor race in Abu Dhabi before returning to the court for the Hopman Cup in Perth at the start of the month.

But an exhibition tournament is no substitute for the real thing and there was a twinkle in Federer's eye as he pictured himself walking onto the Rod Laver Arena on Monday.

"I guess you do miss the matches at some point. You miss the feeling of winning, walking onto a stadium, seeing the guys. You know, it's like an extended family to some extent anyway," he told reporters at the venue on Saturday.

"It's just nice to see everybody again. Plus I have a lot of friends on the tour, you know, because I'm the returning guest for like 20 years everywhere I go.

"It feels good to see those familiar faces every single year. It's something I couldn't quite enjoy the last six months. That's probably what I missed the most."

The feelings are mutual from the tennis-loving public, as witnessed by the 6,000 fans who packed into the Perth Arena just to watch Federer train at the Hopman Cup.

INTO THE UNKNOWN

Federer's last main tour match was a semi-final defeat at Wimbledon to big-serving Canadian Milos Raonic and the extended break has saddled him with the 17th seeding in Melbourne.

But his standing in the game will virtually assure him the prestige of center court for every match he plays.

He will play a qualifier in the first round but hard-hitting Czech Tomas Berdych, seeded 10th, looms as a likely third round opponent before a potential last 16 clash against fifth seed Kei Nishikori.

Federer's first match will be in the prime-time evening session at Rod Laver Arena on Monday, sparing him from the heat of a day tipped to exceed 30 degrees Celsius (86F).

At 35, and with no tour matches banked in his legs, however, Federer said his ability to withstand four and five-set slogs at his comeback grand slam remained "an unknown."

He was comfortable being tagged an underdog, a term rarely used for the 17-times grand slam champion.

"Yeah, why not for a change? I mean, I prefer to be the favorite," he shrugged.

"As long as I'm healthy and I feel like I can go four, five sets, I can go many matches in a row, then I think it's going to be fun.

"It's a great draw because I'm in the draw. So for me, I'm super pleased that I made it here, that I have an opportunity to win matches. How many rests to be seen."

(Editing by John O'Brien)