• What the Deuce

Walking wounded

Jo Carter January 10, 2012

The Australian Open usually throws up a few surprises, not least because just three weeks into the new season, nobody really knows what to expect.

For some, the off-season is a welcome opportunity to rest and recuperate, and they return to the tour refreshed and raring to go. For others, the break halts any momentum they might have had and they struggle to hit the ground running in January.

An early example of the former appears to be Andy Murray. The world No. 4, who limped out of the ATP World Tour Finals with a groin injury, has kicked off 2012 in style, winning the Brisbane International in dominant fashion.

If Murray is rejuvenated after the winter break, Federer appears to be struggling. Technically, the Swiss has not lost his last 20 competitive matches, but defeats to Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal in Abu Dhabi, and his withdrawal from the Qatar Open with a back injury, tell a different story.

That said, very little of a player's form can be deduced from results in Abu Dhabi. The hefty appearance fees mean the top players are tempted to play even if they are carrying injury niggles. But Federer, who has never retired from a match in his career, and only once before withdrawn from an event mid-tournament, must have been in some degree of discomfort to throw in the towel in Qatar.

After all, he has made no secret of his disdain for players who retire during a match, claiming many are more than capable of finishing their match. "For me it is shocking to see so many retirements," Federer said back in September. "For me it doesn't matter how bad I'm feeling. I will be out there and giving it a try, because you never know what's going to happen."

Federer remains optimistic of being fit in time for the Australian Open, which begins on January 16. "I feel that without play and with the right treatment, I will get through it in the next few days," Federer said at his press conference in Doha. "I should be at 100% again."

Organisers and tennis fans had their dream clash in Abu Dhabi - Federer against Nadal, but it was not in the final. Both players were beaten in their respective semi-finals, and were forced to be content to play in a third-fourth play-off in the six-man exhibition event in the Middle East.

Then, the following week, both players failed to reach the final - Federer withdrew before his semi-final against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, while Nadal was beaten by Gael Monfils. Nadal has already revealed he is not at 100% and that he intends to take a month off after the Australian Open to recover from a shoulder injury.

Kim Clijsters is recovering from a hip problem © Getty Images

"I know I am working well, with much more positive attitude than I had during the second half of last season, especially in the final stretch," Nadal was quoted as saying in a Spanish newspaper at the weekend. "I see myself capable of having a good tournament but you never know. I am happy with the level of my game, of how I am doing things and I think I am sowing seeds that will bear fruit. But maybe not in Australia."

We are yet to see much of top seed and defending champion Djokovic, who opted not to play last week, instead heading to Melbourne to get some practice under his belt. He, like Murray ended the year under a cloud - slumping to five defeats in 11 matches following his US Open victory. And like Murray, Djokovic kicked off the season with a shiny trophy, albeit at an exhibition event.

Djokovic remains the red-hot favourite to defend his title in Melbourne, but showed glimpses of vulnerability towards the end of the season that wasn't present earlier in the year. It remains to be seen whether he has fully recovered from the shoulder injury that hampered his progress at the end of last season, but there is little chance of him failing to navigate his way through the first week - Djokovic seemed to forget how to lose for much of 2011.

And it isn't just the men. Women's defending champion Kim Clijsters faces a race to be fit after suffering a hip injury in Brisbane last week, while Maria Sharapova skipped the event with an ankle injury, and Venus Williams will miss the year's first grand slam.

It may be the beginning of a new year, but the way some of big-name stars are walking wounded, it might as well be the end of the season. Could it be the case of last man (and woman) standing in Melbourne?

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Jo Carter Close
Jo Carter is an assistant editor of ESPN.co.uk