What used to be the greatest generation of male tennis players the sport has ever seen has limped towards Melbourne Park for the start tomorrow of the Australian Open (officially sponsored by Kia Motors but unofficially helped on its way by the Red Cross, Medicare and Elastoplast).
The good news is that, at the time of writing, Novak Djokovic (dodgy elbow) is still planning on playing and Stan Wawrinka (even dodgier knee) is hoping to do likewise. But they are not the men they once were.
Djokovic, the six-time champion and winner of 12 grand slam titles, has slumped to No.14 in the rankings and is pleased just to be here. He is still not completely sure that he is ready to play a best-of-five set match after six months off to let his mystery injury heal (he refuses to explain exactly what it is that ails him) but, for the moment, he is game to play. Yet with Donald Young to face in the first round and potentially Gael Monfils to deal with in the second, he may not be hanging around for too long.
“I still know what I’m capable of, and I believe in my own abilities to win against the best players in the world,” he said, rather optimistically. “I know that if I get myself to desired level of performance – mental and physical – that I can actually have a good chance to go far in the tournament.
“Now, whether my approach is different to this year’s Australian Open to other previous years, probably yes. It’s different circumstances. But it is exciting. Honestly, it’s a good place to be.”
Wawrinka left it until the last minute before making his decision to play. He only took the flight south on a whim to see how his left knee would hold up in practice with the top men following surgery to repair severe cartilage damage in August. As it turned out, the knee still hurt but it appeared to be stable. That in itself was a huge step forward.
“For me, I think the fact that I’m here and I’m going to play the first one, it’s a big victory,” he said. “It’s the best that I could dream [of] when I had the surgery, is to be here sitting in front of you and to say, OK, I’m going to play the first match. That’s something really good from my side, especially from the knee. The knee is getting way better. I still have a lot of work to do physically and also tennis-wise to be to my top level.
“I practised with Rafa, I practised with Novak, with Berdych, with Monfils, with Dimitrov. I didn’t win many sets, but that’s not the most important. I did way more hours in one week than I’ve done the last few months, and against a way better level of intensity. That’s my goal, was to come here, to practise three, four hours a day, to see how the knee can keep it.”
It all sounds so familiar to Rafael Nadal. He, too, has come to Australia on the back of an injury lay-off, his fragile knees finally giving out on him towards the end of last year after he had collected another two grand slam titles. Coming to Melbourne without a warm-up tournament is a new experience for him – he asked to play a full practice match against Dominic Thiem yesterday and scraped through on a champions’ tiebreak – but he, at least, is feeling in reasonable nick. For the moment.
That three of his main rivals are crocked is unfortunate; that they are finding their respective situations hard to deal with is, Nadal feels, merely a matter of experience. And Nadal has plenty of previous when it comes to injuries.
“I was in the situation that they are probably more times than what they have been,” he said. “It is nothing new for me that I get an injury. I don’t know what’s going to happen. The problems that they had are different issues, different injuries, but I had these problems during my career couple of times.
“I really had them since the beginning, because in 2005 I had a very tough foot injury, and I didn’t know if I would be able to keep playing tennis. During all these years, I was very happy to keep playing tennis. I don’t need to be 31 to say, OK, I am lucky to be here. No. At 22, I felt the same. I’m still feeling the same.”
He is also feeling as confident as he can given how little match play he has had in the build up to the tournament. “I feel myself more or less playing well,” he said, which should strike a chord of fear in the hearts of his opponents. But he also adds the rider: “We are here to try my best, try to see if I am able to start.” Which should strike a chord of fear into the hearts of the tournament organisers.
When he and Roger Federer reached the final in Australia last year, the watching world gasped. How could these two old champions turn it on again? How could they come back from injury yet again and, from a standing start, play like in days of yore? But they did. And then they did it again and again to carve up the grand slam season between them.
The bookies have Federer as the solid favourite to retain his Australian title with Nadal just behind him. The much touted “Next Gen” players may beg to differ with that assessment but of the young guns desperate to prove themselves, the likes of Alexander Zverev, Thiem, Andrey Rublev and Denis Shapovalov, none have experienced life at the very sharp end of a major event. Thiem has two Roland Garros semi-finals to his name but away from the slow red dirt, he is simply not the same player.
Meanwhile the defending champion is looking good. Awfully good. Federer’s preparations went perfectly as he and Belinda Bencic won the Hopman Cup, an exhibition event, for Switzerland a couple of weeks ago and since he arrived in Melbourne, he has been looking smooth, suave and very relaxed. The bookies fancy his chances and so does everyone else who has surveyed the draw.
The old GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) may be 36 but he is one of the few men able to walk to the courts unaided this week. No wonder the sensible money is on him winning grand slam title No.20.