This year, though in a rather different scenario, the question might be exactly the same.
When players returned at the start of 2017 from their all-too-short “off” season to prepare for the oh-so-early Australian Open, the question applied in particular to Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, who entered the first Major of the year as No17 and No9 respectively after long months away from the tour with injury.
The two men went on to dominate the season, sharing all for Majors, winning five of the nine Masters, and ending the year as Nos 1 and 2.
Meanwhile, the two men who had begun last year as top dogs, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic, would hit similar injury buffers this year, and they are about to begin the 2018 season, having not played a tour match since Wimbledon, ranked 16 and 12 respectively.
And they were not alone in fighting their way back to fitness.
Stan Wawrinka would also not play a match after his first at Wimbledon, and slipped outside the top four to No9 this week.
Kei Nishikori, No5 a year ago, has plummeted to 22, and has not played after losing a marathon opening match in Montreal in August.
Milos Raonic was the No3 seed at last year’s Australian Open, now he is ranked 24 after winning only a single match since the start of August—he retired after one game in Tokyo and has not played since.
And that accounts for the entire top five of a year ago. But it did not stop there.
Gael Monfils was at No7, now he is at 46 after assorted knee and ankle injuries. Tomas Berdych won just two matches after July and has not played since the beginning of October: He is down to No19. So seven of last year’s top 10 have been incapacitated for extended periods—and make that eight after Nadal went on to suffer recurring knee problems at the end of the year.
Back to that question, then: Can the top-10 stalwarts bounce back?
And in truth, judging by the withdrawals from the exhibition and tour events that cut the path to Melbourne, the signs are not good.
First Nadal, and the world No1 and runner-up at last year’s Australian Open was scheduled to warm up at the Mubadala World Tennis Championships, then to play in Brisbane, and conclude his preparations at the latest Fast4 in Sydney.
Warning bells rang when he cancelled a schedule practice at his Academy in Mallorca, and sure enough, that news was followed by an announcement on Twitter:
“I am sorry to announce I won’t be coming to Brisbane this year. My intention was to play but I am still not ready after last year’s long season and the late start of my preparation. I had a great time there and it was a great start to the month I spent in Australia.”
He added with an upbeat note: “I will be seeing my Aussie fans when I land on the 4th in Melbourne and start there my preparation for the Australian Open.”
But of course, Nadal was pushing his knee right up to the last tournament of 2017, only pulling the plug after an arduous opening match at the World Tour Finals. So every week is a valuable commodity in his recovery. Murray’s hip problems, on contrast, date back to June, and he opted for the non-invasive but very long road to recovery. His first appearance, at his charity event in Glasgow in November against Federer, was thus watched with keen interest, and his first words picked over with a fine-toothed comb.
Murray was frank about his progress: “Some days I’ve been on the court for a couple of hours. Those two hours are not a 100 per cent intensity. I’m working on some more technical things. I’m not doing, like, a massive pounding through my body and through my joints, but I’ve spent a decent amount of time on court… the last week, 10 days, I’ve been on the court an hour-and-a-half, two hours, most days, just trying to build up slowly.
“When I get back on the court next year and start playing again it might not come immediately. I might not play my best tennis straight off… but I believe in the work I’m doing and I have been hitting the ball very well in practice, but there is a difference between that 75-80 percent practice and going out 100 percent for two to three hours on a match court. Until I do that, I can’t be certain, but I think I’ll be fine.”
That he was still at home at Christmas after a training block in Miami caused consternation in some quarters—he planned, he said, to head Down Under earlier than usual—but well before his scheduled appearance in Brisbane, he flew to Abu Dhabi to practise in the heat among the top men preparing for the lucrative Mubadala tournament. It was just as well.
For just hours before Djokovic was scheduled to make his first competitive appearance in six months, he withdrew, explaining:
“I’m terribly disappointed that I am forced to withdraw from the Mubadala World Tennis Championship. Unfortunately, in the past few days I started to feel pain in the elbow and after several tests, my medical team has advised me not to risk anything, to withdraw from the tournament and to immediately continue with the therapies.
“I am very sad because I was eager to return to playing official matches… Now I need to accept this situation, and to wait for the results of the therapies, in order to start playing tennis again and getting back to full rhythm. This might affect the start of the season and the tournament plan, but the decision will be made in the following days.”
The message, of course, raises concerns over his preparedness for the Australian Open, though he is scheduled to play at the ATP Doha event next week, and then the short-form TieBreak 10s at Melbourne Park, too.
Meanwhile, Murray stepped in for a one-set exhibition against Bautista Agut when Djokovic withdrew in Abu Dhabi, and although the Briton lost convincingly, 6-2, he afterwards assured fans that he was feeling better as the match went on. That he is still carrying the limp that was in evident in Glasgow, however, proves that he is still some way from that hoped-for 100 percent.
Murray is scheduled to play in Brisbane next week, and the tournament will be crossing fingers that, along with Nadal and Nishikori, it does not also lose one more of its biggest stars.
Mubadala World Tennis Championships, Abu Dhabi, 28-30 December
(exho event—no ranking points)
Defending champion: Nadal
Players: Roberto Bautista Agut (replacing Nadal), Dominic Thiem, Murray (exho set only), Andrey Rublev (replacing Raonic), Kevin Anderson (replacing Wawrinka), Pablo Carreno Busta
Hopman Cup, Perth, 30 December-6 January
(mixed round robin—no ranking points)
Defending champs: Gasquet/Mladenovic, France
Players Group A: Zverev/Kerber; Pospisil/Bouchard; Goffin/Mertens; Kokkinakis/Gavrilova
Players Group B: Federer/Bencic; Sock/Vandeweghe; Khachanov/Pavlyuchenkova; Sugita/Osaka
Brisbane International, ATP 250, 28-man draw, 31 December-7 January
Defending champion: Grigor Dimitrov
Players: Murray, Dimitrov, Raonic, Kyrgios, Gilles Muller, Diego Schwartzman, Damir Dzumhur, Mischa Zverev
Withdrawn: Nadal, Nishikori
Qatar Open (Doha): ATP 250, 32-man draw, 1-6 January
Defending champion: Djokovic
Players: Djokovic, Thiem, Carreno Busta, Berdych, Albert Ramos-Vinolas, Feliciano Lopez, Richard Gasquet, Fernando Verdasco
Pune (India): ATP 250, 28-man draw, 1-6 January
Defending champion (Chennai): Bautista Agut
Players: Marin Cilic, Kevin Anderson, Bautista Agut, Robin Haase
Auckland International: ATP 250, 28-man draw, 8-13 January
Defending champion: Sock
Players: Sock, Juan Martin del Potro, John Isner, Steve Johnson, Khachanov, Ryan Harrison, Kyle Edmund, Denis Shapovalov
Sydney International: ATP 250, 28-man draw, 7-13 January
Defending champion: Muller
Players: Nishikori, Ramos-Vinolas, Muller, Schwartzman, Fognini, Mannarino, Kohlschreiber, Dzumhur
Priceline Kooyong Classic, Melbourne, 9-12 January
(four-day round-robin—no ranking points)
Defending champion: Goffin
Players: Thiem, Goffin, Cilic, Anderson, Carreno Busta, Gasquet, Nishioka, Matt Ebden
Fast4 Showdown, Sydney Olympic Park, 8 January
Kyrgios, Dimitrov, Alexander Zverev, plus TBA
Tiebreak 10s, Melbourne Park, 10 January
Djokovic, Kyrgios, Wawrinka, Lleyton Hewitt, plus TBA
World Tennis Challenge, Adelaide, 8-10 January
(exho round-robin—no ranking points)
Players: Australia team, Philippousis/Kokkinakis; USA team, Agassi/Tiafoe; International team, Wilander/Monfils
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