MELBOURNE: The prospects of an unprecedented 20th Grand Slam victory have strengthened for ageless wonder Roger Federer as his main rivals flounder ahead of the Australian Open.
The 36-year-old is coming off an extraordinary 2017, when he won a fifth Australian Open title and a record eighth at Wimbledon, and there could be yet more glory with a depleted field of top contenders in Melbourne.
Andy Murray and Japan’s Kei Nishikori are already out of the year’s opening Grand Slam with injuries, while 12-time major champion Novak Djokovic is troubled by an elbow complaint and hasn’t played for six months.
World number one Rafael Nadal withdrew from his first tour event of 2018, in Brisbane, with continuing knee problems, and is seeking match practice in a Melbourne exhibition event ahead of the January 15 start.
The 2014 winner Stan Wawrinka, who hasn’t played since last year’s Wimbledon and subsequent knee surgery, has had little warm-up work and is no longer with his four-year coach Magnus Norman.
Yet amid it all Federer keeps going, winning all his matches at the mixed-teams Hopman Cup in Perth this month and seemingly injury-free.
“I just have to pace myself all the way up to the tournament in Melbourne, and I’ll be ready,” he said after his Hopman Cup final victory with Switzerland teammate Belinda Bencic. “I’m just excited going back to Melbourne where I had my fairytale run last year. It was crazy. It’s great to be the defending champion. I take it the right way. I won’t put extra pressure on myself, regardless of who’s going to play, or not play. For me it’s just important to be in a good mindset, well prepared, and ready to go. And I feel like I am ready.”
Nadal, who lost to Federer in five sets in a vintage Australian final last year, opted to join Djokovic at the Kooyong Classic exhibition event for some match practice in the week before the Open.
He lost first match of the year 6-4, 7-5 to Richard Gasquet, but said he was happy after his troublesome knee held up “fine”.
Nadal’s knee injury hampered the end of his 2017 season and forced him to skip last week’s Brisbane International, but he was able to give it a workout at the non-tour event in Melbourne.
Though he lost in straight sets, the Spaniard said he would keep working hard until the start of the Australian Open at Melbourne Park on Monday.
“I’m very happy to be back in Australia,” he said. “I had a heavy year in 2017 and I started my preparation later than usual. But I’ve arrived in plenty of time. It’s great to get the feeling once again of playing a match. This was a good test for me after some good training, that’s the most important thing.”
The 16-time Grand Slam winner was far from his best in the exhibition encounter against a player he has beaten 15-0 on the ATP Tour in a rivalry dating back to junior days.
Nadal, 31, heads the entry list for the Australian Open and said he will be ready to front up for the first round.
“The knee is fine,” he said in answer to the inevitable question. “I’m here. If I was not feeling good I would not be here, so that’s good news. I’ll train hard over the next few days for the Australian Open, I will be ready.”
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