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I’ve never served better, says Federer

He outclassed his long-time rival, Serbian world number one Novak Djokovic, with a brilliant all-round display in the final of the Dubai Championships earlier this month and cannot recall ever serving better.

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“I feel like I am playing very well,” Federer, a 17-times grand slam singles champion, told reporters on Wednesday while preparing for the BNP Paribas Open at the Indian Well Tennis Garden.

“I am serving as good as I ever have, I am playing very good attacking tennis and I am playing very committed, which is maybe something I haven’t always done throughout my career.”

Asked if there was anything he could no longer do on the court as he approaches his mid-thirties that was effortless for him a decade ago, Federer replied: “Not really.

“I have a hard time remembering back how I felt in 2002,” he added, sparking loud laughter in the interview room. “(Ten years ago) I felt like I was more insecure with my game, I was more worried about a bad day.

“Today I don’t feel like I have that many bad days any more. Maybe sometimes you just come out and it’s just not working. That sometimes happens and it happened very few times in the years when I was very dominant.”

Federer returns this week to one of his favourite venues, having claimed four titles at Indian Wells, including a unique run of three in a row from 2004-2006.

Asked why he felt no one had managed to match his feat since by winning at least two consecutive BNP Paribas Open crowns, Federer replied: “I just think it’s a coincidence.

“If you are playing well here, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to win this one a few times in a row, to be honest.”

The BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells is the first of back-to-back Masters 1000 events on the ATP Tour, with the Miami Open scheduled to follow from March 25.

Though the two tournaments are extremely well run and attract the best players in the world, Federer has never been a big fan of them being squeezed together.

“I don’t mind the 10 days but when it’s back-to-back 10 days there’s a lot of time that gets wasted, especially for those who lose (in the) first round,” he said.

(Editing by Nick Mulvenney)

New Program can slow dementia

Healthy eating, exercise, brain-training and health management can slow down mental decline in older people, according to a Finnish study.

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Scientists studied 1,260 Fins aged 60-to-77, all of whom were considered to be at risk of dementia.

Standard mental functioning tests at the end of two years showed that participants randomly allocated to the program had 25 per cent better test scores than those receiving regular health advice.

For some tests, differences between groups were more striking.

For executive functioning – the brain’s ability to organise and regulate thought processes – scores were 83 per cent higher in the program group and for processing speed 150 per cent higher.

Lead researcher Professor Miia Kivipelto, from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, said previous research had shown links between cognitive decline in older people and factors such as diet, heart health, and fitness.

“Our study is the first large randomised controlled trial to show that an intensive program aimed at addressing these risk factors might be able to prevent cognitive decline in elderly people who are at risk of dementia,” she said.

Findings from the Finnish Geriatric Intervention Study to Prevent Cognitive Impairment and Disability are reported in the The Lancet.

Dr Simon Ridley, from Alzheimer’s Research UK, said the initial results were promising.

“They suggest that a combination of improving cardiovascular health and keeping mentally active could slow decline in some aspects of our thinking, but it’s unclear which of the interventions carried the greatest benefit.

“Further studies like this will be vital to help us unpick the best approaches to maintaining brain health as we age and potentially helping to reduce the burden of dementia in society,” he said.

Abbott fails to fight for causes

“A cause worth fighting for is worth fighting for to the end.

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This quote from former US president Grover Cleveland might have been Tony Abbott’s mantra. But it’s gone by the wayside in recent months.

Having argued against taxpayer handouts for the car industry, the government this week announced it wouldn’t be going ahead with its proposed cut to a key funding program.

Asked to justify the cut before the September 2013 election, Abbott said: “No adult prime minister in the heat of an election campaign, in panic over polls, charges down the street waving a blank cheque after anyone.”

Elected to government, he insisted there would be no more money available and in his first budget the cut was put in writing.

But Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane revealed this week he had been working on the back down since August last year – just three months after the budget was handed down.

Abbott said the decision was necessary because without the money, Holden, Ford and Toyota could have closed their doors earlier than originally planned.

Auto workers hailed the decision, but questioned why the government hadn’t made it earlier and – indeed – why the car industry was allowed to die after the 2013 election.

A further example of the policy confusion emerged this week when Treasurer Joe Hockey floated the idea of superannuation savings being made accessible for house deposits and student debts.

The thought bubble came the day Hockey was arguing the ageing population was putting pressure on pensions.

Abbott described it as a “perfectly good and respectable idea”, which he had previously put to John Hewson when advising the former Liberal leader.

Malcolm Turnbull, the undeclared Liberal leadership contender, described it as a “thoroughly bad idea”.

“That’s not what the superannuation system is designed to achieve,” he said, adding the short supply of land and new homes was the biggest problem in terms of housing affordability.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten put it in the context of the coalition sticking by its plan to leave the superannuation guarantee rate at 9.5 per cent until June 30, 2021, after which it wouldn’t hit 12 per cent until 2025.

Shorten contrasted it with Labor’s plan to gradually raise it from this year until it hits 12 per cent in 2019.

A further issue arose when Abbott talked about indigenous people living in remote areas as a “lifestyle” choice.

It appeared to fly in the face of the prime minister taking all of the government’s indigenous functions into his department as well as committing to working out of a remote community for one week a year.

The underlying message appeared to be the government would rather not spend money on remote Australia, where many Aboriginal people have either lived for generations or been forcibly removed to in the 1950s and `60s.

Liberal senator Arthur Sinodinos said it was a question of balancing respect for indigenous culture with “the question about cost of providing services and whether location gets in the way of people having the right lifetime opportunities”.

Indigenous leader Noel Pearson put it this way: “I just cannot see how people from these remote communities are going to find the place on the fringes of the country towns and in the suburbs that doesn’t involve part two of life in the underclass.”

He said the policy thought bubble was a “disgraceful turn of events”.

Heading into the last fortnight of parliament before the federal budget, confusion also reigns around two other policy issues – the future of Medicare and university funding.

Education Minister Christopher Pyne has given away hundreds of millions of dollars from the budget in an effort to win the support of Senate cross benchers for deregulation.

But he is far from guaranteed the bill will pass and does not have a plan B for the sector.

Health Minister Sussan Ley is hanging on to the prospect of a “price signal” for doctor visits, despite Abbott declaring the co-payment “dead, buried and cremated”.

Abbott shouldn’t be surprised at the polls, which this week showed the coalition trailing Labor by an average 46-54 in two party terms.

Few voters understand what causes he is still willing to fight for.

Search for AirAsia plane coming to an end

AirAsia founder Tony Fernandes says the airline is not giving up on finding the missing victims from crashed flight QZ8501, despite flagging an end to the recovery mission.

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The plane was en route from Surabaya, Indonesia, to Singapore when it crashed into the Java Sea on December 28, killing all 162 people on board.

A total of 60 bodies remain missing.

Speaking in Sydney, Mr Fernandes said the airline was giving it “one last shot” at recovering those still missing.

“Our message is we’re not giving up,” he told reporters on Thursday.

“They (the families) know that because I am speaking to them every day.”

The airline’s message to families was “keep hoping, keep going”, he said.

“It is our responsibly to look after those families as best as we can,” Mr Fernandes said.

Mr Fernandes, in Australia to announce an airfare sale, said the QZ8051 recovery work would continue round the clock for seven to 10 more “operational days” before being shut down.

He said he was in “constant dialogue” with the families of those still missing, and that “contingencies” would be put in place should not all the bodies be located.

“QZ8051 was probably the worst moment of my life and it continues to be something that will haunt me forever,” he said.

Mr Fernandes would not be drawn on why the preliminary official report into the crash was not being made public.

Indonesian investigators earlier this year submitted the report into the plane crash to the International Civil Aviation Organisation, keeping its contents secret.

Mr Fernandes said it was “not right for him to say whether they should have or whether they shouldn’t have” publicised the report, adding there must have been a “valid reason” for the decision.

He also defended AirAsia’s safety record. “All I can say is that we’re regulated by lots and lots of authorities and no one has banned us from coming to their country,” he said.

Mr Fernandes also said he supported better aircraft tracking technology amid the ongoing mystery about the whereabouts of missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370.

“I can’t see why data can’t be sent to the cloud every five minutes for instance,” he said.

“It’s ridiculous in this day and age that you can find your iPhone but we can’t find an aircraft.”

Iraqi forces enter IS-held Tikrit

Iraqi forces have entered Tikrit, dodging bombs and sniper fire in search of their biggest victory yet against embattled jihadists who tried to light new fires elsewhere in Iraq and Syria.

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The Islamic State group has suffered stinging defeats in the heart of its self-proclaimed “caliphate” recently, but its ultraviolent ideology has inspired attacks and recruits globally.

With IS brutality and population displacement reaching new highs, Washington sought increased powers from the US Congress to take on a group threatening to reshape the Middle East.

However, it was without direct support from the US-led coalition’s air campaign that Iraqi government and allied forces punched into parts of Tikrit on Wednesday, marking a new phase in a 10-day drive to wrest the city back from IS.

A combination of army, police and volunteer forces moved into northern and southern Tikrit, the hometown of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein and a main IS stronghold.

A major general told AFP on condition of anonymity that government forces were battling “to cleanse the neighbourhood of Qadisiyah” in Tikrit.

“But we are engaging in a very delicate battle because we are not facing fighters on the ground, we are facing booby-trapped terrain and sniper fire. Our movement is slow,” he said.

An army colonel said forces coming from another direction had also retaken the main hospital on the city’s southern edge.

Early in the offensive, in which up to 30,000 men were initially involved while IS is believed to have just a few hundred fighters inside Tikrit, most outlying areas were reconquered.

The town of al-Alam, a flashpoint north of Tikrit along the Tigris river, was fully under the control of pro-government fighters and local anti-IS Sunni tribesmen Wednesday, an AFP reporter there said.

On the back foot in eastern and northern Iraq, IS tried to seize the initiative elsewhere, including with a spectacular co-ordinated attack in Ramadi in the west.

Twelve car bombs exploded almost simultaneously around the city after dawn, with at least seven suicide bombers targeting government security installations, police said.

At least 17 people were killed and 38 wounded, according to a police lieutenant colonel and a doctor at Ramadi hospital.

Clashes ensued but IS failed to gain any ground in one of the biggest attacks against a rare pocket of government control in Anbar.

Australian teenager Jake Bilardi also reportedly carried out a suicide bombing in western Iraq, which Prime Minister Tony Abbott described as “absolutely horrific”.

Around 140 Australians have travelled to Iraq and Syria to join IS and other jihadists, the government has said.

US Secretary of State John Kerry said it was a “pivotal hour” in the battle against the most violent group in the history of modern jihad.