After failing to reach a Grand Slam final in 2013 for the first time in more than a decade, four-time Australian Open champion Roger Federer enters the season's first major as a rare underdog.
But while the 32-year-old superstar will be favored to reach the quarterfinals Down Under for the 11th straight year, he'll be a long shot to force a highly anticipated semifinal showdown with archrival Rafael Nadal in the second week.
With the two legends on opposite ends of their half of the draw, it's safe to say that a 33rd meeting will have to be put on hold.
Sure, Federer has reached the semifinals at every Australian Open dating back to 2004. But keep in mind that the 17-time major winner has bowed out before the semis in each of his past three Slam appearances, even snapping his remarkable streak of 36 consecutive Slam quarterfinal berths at Wimbledon last summer.
He followed that disappointing loss up with a fourth-round exit at the 2013 U.S. Open, his earliest since 2003.
As Arlene on Twitter points out, times have changed:
Remember back in the day when we didn't panic about Federer's draw. We just knew without a doubt he'd be in the semifinals #sweetnostalgia— Arlene (@FitLen) January 10, 2014
With Federer struggling against the game's elite players like never before and suffering head-scratching defeats on the big stage, his focus has shifted as of late, per The Independent's Paul Newman:
I really feel like I'm on the way back. Who knows? Maybe I'll play my best in March or April. That's my feeling, but I still feel there's a lot that's possible right now. Maybe that's why I haven't set particular, special goals. I just want to get back to a good level and then, hopefully, I can start winning tournaments again.
Although the first few rounds in Melbourne project to go Federer's way, he could potentially run into trouble as soon as the fourth round, where 2008 Australian Open finalist and No. 10 seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga could be waiting for him.
Tsonga pushed Federer to five sets in the quarterfinals in Melbourne last year and knocked him off easily in straight sets in the 2013 French Open quarterfinals more than four months later.
If Federer is able to battle his way past the Frenchman in the fourth round, he'll likely be pitted against fourth-seeded Andy Murray in the quarterfinals. Remember, Murray has won three of the two stars' past four meetings going back to the 2012 Summer Olympics, including last year's Australian Open semifinal. Murray won that match in five sets, but Federer would need two superb tiebreak victories to prolong it.
Where will Fed's 2014 Aussie Open run end assuming the top seeds prevail?
Even though Murray is working to reach top form after undergoing back surgery last fall, it's difficult to imagine Federer beating him at this point in their respective careers. The 26-year-old Scotsman has clearly turned the corner in their rivalry, breaking through at a major in 2012, taking an 11-9 advantage in the overall head-to-head with Federer and working hard to become one of the top returners in the men's game.
Keep in mind that since Murray's loss to Federer in the 2012 Wimbledon final, he's won eight out of 12 sets against the former world No. 1.
While it's certainly foolish to count Federer out of a tournament where he's won 68 matches and four titles since the turn of the century, given his immense struggles against the top 10 last year, it's more than fair to say he'll be a long shot to get past both Tsonga and Murray and set up a marquee semifinal showdown with Nadal this January.
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