Novak Djokovic and Stan Wawrinka will not be joining Andy Murray, Kei Nishikori, Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka on the absentees list here at the Australian Open, but it would be no surprise if the Serb and the Swiss do not hang around too long.
After six months out because of injury and with no competitive matches under their belt going into the tournament, both men waited until less than 48 hours before the opening matches on Monday before confirming their participation. Both admitted that it is likely to be a while before they are back playing at their best.
“After long and very thorough consultations with my team and doctors, orthopaedic specialists, we have made a decision that it is fine and adequate for me to play here,” Djokovic said when asked about the elbow injury which was still troubling him when he pulled out of last week’s Qatar Open. “Right now it’s at the level where I can compete and every day is getting better.”
Roger Federer’s route to the Australian Open final
Wawrinka, who had knee surgery last summer, decided to play only after practising today. “I’m here, so I’m better,” Wawrinka said. “It’s been six months now. It’s been tough, really tough, to get back in a place to be able to play again. I’m slowly getting there.”
Djokovic confirmed that he had not had an operation but did not give any details about his injury. He declined to say whether surgery was an option – “There are some other options, long-term options, that I will obviously revisit and address post-tournament” – or to say whether he had needed a cortisone injection. However, he said that he had been advised that he could not cause any further damage by playing here.
The former world No 1, who has added Radek Stepanek to his coaching team, is playing with a compression sleeve on his arm and has unveiled a new service motion. He said the serve had been causing him the most pain in his elbow.
“There are three or four details, things that I’ve changed with my rotation, the elbow up, which is the most obvious one,” he said of his service action. “I feel like I spend less energy, but I’m more efficient.”
Djokovic admitted that his approach to this tournament would be a little different compared with previous years but added: “I still know what I’m capable of and I believe in my own abilities to win against the best players in the world. I know that if I get myself to my desired level of performance – mental and physical – that I can actually have a good chance to go far in the tournament.”
Wawrinka was on crutches for eight weeks after his operation and his first priority had simply been to walk again. “It was a last-minute decision to come here for a week to practise without knowing if I would be able to play or not, but I think it was the right choice to practise a lot to get my knee a little bit better after being at home for a few months,” the former Australian Open champion said.
“It was important to push, to practise with the top guys, to practise a lot more than normally because it’s the first week that I’ve had the chance to play points and to practise at a high level. I know I’m not at the level I want to be yet because it’s a long process to get there, but I’m happy with the way the knee is working. The fact that I’m here and I’m going to play in the first round is a big victory.
“I still have a lot of work to do physically and also tennis-wise to be back at my top level. I’m going to take the time that I need for that. I know I need to get through that, but I need to start somewhere.”
Wawrinka, who said he still suffered pain in his knee, has practised here with a number of top players, including Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. “I didn’t win many sets, but that was not what was most important,” he said. “I did way more hours in one week than I’ve done the last few months, and at a much higher level of intensity. That was my goal, to come here, to practise three or four hours a day, to see how the knee can handle it.”
He added: “I know I need a few weeks, a month. I don’t know, I will see. That’s my first goal. Then I will decide what will be the next goal.
“I’ve been in contact a lot with my doctor since the surgery. He always told me that it was a big surgery, that it was complicated, and it was important to take time, not to rush, to really follow all the processes to get there. He knows exactly the pain I feel, the pain I don’t feel. We talk at least once a week. I know exactly when I have to stop practising or when I have to go a little bit less intense, when I can push.”
The other major change for Wawrinka last year was the parting of the ways with Magnus Norman, his coach. Wawrinka said he was “more sad than angry” with the Swede for ending their partnership. For the moment he is working with Yannick Fattebert, who previously assisted Norman.
Nadal has also been recovering from a knee problem but said he had practised well here and hoped to be ready. However, he pointed out that he would be going into the Australian Open without having played a competitive match for the first time in his career.
The world No 1 said he knew what Wawrinka and Murray were going through because he had been in their situation several times in his career. “I wish Stan and Andy a good recovery,” he said. “There are too many injuries on the tour. I am not the one to say, but somebody has to look at what’s going on.”
Nevertheless, all the players who have been troubled by injury are taking heart from what Nadal and Roger Federer achieved last year. “Roger and Rafa’s year last year has shown age is just a number, especially in Roger’s case,” Djokovic said.