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Rivalry with Nadal has forged stronger friendship, says Federer

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Federer on Nadal rivalry
  • Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal share a rivalry on court, but also a friendship off it
  • Sixteen-time grand slam champion says some people might find friendship strange but it's good for tennis
  • Federer starts defense of Australian Open title in Melbourne this month
  • New coach Paul Annacone has urged Federer to be more aggressive

(CNN) -- Ahead of the first grand slam tournament of the year, the Australian Open, defending champion Roger Federer has exclusively told CNN's Pedro Pinto that his rivalry with Rafael Nadal is only on the tennis court -- and the pair are good friends when the action stops.

"Some people might think that it's strange. Some other people think its great and it's actually really nice for the sport," Federer said.

"In the past, maybe there have been much tougher and harsher rivalries. People wouldn't talk to each other, they didn't like each other and they needed to hate each other to actually perform well against each other. But it doesn't need to be that way," he added.

Fierce competition with the Spaniard has not only made both of them better players, Federer says, but also forged a stronger bond between them.

At the end of last year, Nadal accepted the World No.2's invitation to play in the "Match for Africa" in Zurich for the Roger Federer Foundation which funds child development in Africa.

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There's a bit of pressure being the defending champion, but I love going down to Australia; it's a wonderful place to play tennis.
--Roger Federer

The Swiss won that battle, although Nadal evened things up when the two faced each other in Madrid.

And Federer has carried the good form he showed at the end of 2010 into the new year, already winning the Qatar Open in Doha for the third time in his career.

Federer and Nadal did not face each other in the gulf state, but their paths have crossed 22 times since 2004, with Nadal currently leading the head-to-head 14 victories to eight.

Federer is now turning his attention to the Australian Open in Melbourne, but admits to feeling a few nerves heading into the tournament.

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"There's a bit of pressure being the defending champion, but I love going down to Australia; it's a wonderful place to play tennis.

"In the off season I practiced really well, so I feel very confident going into the tournament," Federer added.

Federer's resurgence in form has also given his critics food for thought, with some commentators believing that the 29-year-old's best days were firmly behind him.

"It isn't the first time that I have been written off. It happened when Rafa took the number one spot a couple of years ago," continued Federer.

"But I was able to snatch it back and then people were questioning Rafa when he went nine months without winning a tournament.

"It's disappointing that people have short memories. Even after everything you have done there are those who write you off so quickly.

"It's frustrating to say the least. You walk into press conferences and there is a negative tone in there, when really there is nothing to be negative about.

"Sometimes, I am beaten simply because my opponent has played better than me, but often that fact isn't respected which I don't think is fair."

In addition to his regular backroom team -- which includes the Swiss Davis captain Severin Luthi -- Federer will also draw on the experience of renowned coach Paul Annacone, who he recruited in August last year and has overseen a definite upsurge in Federer's performances.

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"I just thought it would be nice to get someone else into my team who comes in with huge experience and comes from a different angle," he said.

So what has Federer learnt from Annacaone, a man who coached Pete Sampras for six years.

"He's obviously told me to play more aggressive, because I did have a tendency to start chipping the backhand return into play just getting the rally started.

"So we've been working on a few key little areas and they seemed to have worked..."