Has any grand-slam build-up stood more at the mercy of torn muscles, ligaments and tendons? Some of tennis’s most famous names have yet to prove their fitness for Monday’s Australian Open, although Novak Djokovic – the six-time champion here – did at least end a six-month absence on Wednesday by participating in a couple of friendlies.
Djokovic’s day started at the Kooyong Classic against world No. 5 Dominic Thiem. He wore a sleeve over his troublesome right elbow and used a remodelled service action with a shorter backswing. The occasion lacked the intensity of a full tour match, but he still looked delighted to come out on top, beating a listless Thiem by a 6-1, 6-4 margin. “I’m smiling inside and outside,” he told the on-court interviewer after the first set. “I just love this sport so much.”
This was the first time Djokovic had appeared on a match court – even an unofficial one – since July 12, when he was forced to pull out of his Wimbledon quarter-final by that same cranky elbow. On Wednesday’s evidence, you would expect him to participate in next week’s tournament, but exhibitions can be misleading. It’s also worth noting that Djokovic’s second appearance of the day – in the Tie Break Tens event at Melbourne Park – brought him a 10-6 defeat at the hands of home favourite Lleyton Hewitt, who has been retired for almost a year.
Still, better to put yourself out on court than not. And one man who didn’t manage to appear on Wednesday was Stan Wawrinka, the 2014 champion here. Wawrinka is another player who has been missing from the tour since last year’s Wimbledon, having undergone knee surgery soon afterwards.
Having been booked for Tie Break Tens – a short-form event that hopes to become tennis’s answer to Twenty20 cricket – Wawrinka withdrew a couple of hours before the start, citing a shoulder issue this time. And if he couldn’t manage one 15-minute run-out, held under a roof in a climate-controlled arena, how is he going to cope with the most gruelling grand slam of the season?
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Rafael Nadal, who has also been nursing a sore knee, should be happy with his own outing at the Tie Break Ten, as he won two rounds before going down to Tomas Berdych in the final. But Garbine Muguruza – who had started the day as the Australian Open favourite – became another entry on the sick list last night. Muguruza came through her opening match in Sydney on Wednesday against Kiki Bertens and then withdrew from the tournament anyway, citing a thigh problem.
Meanwhile, the British Fed Cup captain Anne Keothavong expressed her dismay on Wednesday that Laura Robson – the British No. 5 – missed out on the qualifying event for the Australian Open because of the imbalance between the men’s and women’s tours.
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For as long as anyone can remember, three of the four grand slams (the US Open being the exception) have run qualifying events for 128 men but only 96 women. The difference cost Robson in this instance as she was ranked No. 230 when the list was compiled, which put her 14 places outside the cut-off. Whereas the last man to receive an invite was world No. 259 Lorenzo Giustino.
This anomaly – which probably dates back to a time when there were far fewer female professionals than today – appears to have slipped by without anyone noticing or questioning it. But it is clearly out of kilter with the era of equal prize-money. “Someone, please try and find an answer for this,” wrote Keothavong on her Twitter page. “Not right.”
First up in qualifying on Wednesday for the men – who start a day earlier than the women, because of the extra volume of matches – was British No. 3 Cameron Norrie. He served out bravely for a 6-1, 6-7, 6-4 victory over Canada’s Filip Peliwo. But Liam Broady fell to Italy’s Matteo Berrettini in another closely fought encounter, which was decided by a 7-5 scoreline in the third-set tie-break.
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