Melbourne - Twelve-time Grand Slam winner Novak Djokovic
headlines a list of walking wounded at the Australian Open, with the Serb
desperate to get back to winning ways after six months out injured.
The former world number one is making a tilt at a record
seventh Melbourne Park crown, but has some serious rust to shake off if he is
to make an impression.
Djokovic has been sidelined since Wimbledon in July, with a
Tie Break Tens exhibition event on Wednesday and the Kooyong Classic, where he
is drawn to play world number five Dominic Thiem, his only chance to test his
right elbow injury.
"Finally back in the land down under. I feel ready.
Idemo! (let's go)," he tweeted on Sunday, posting a video of himself
hitting on Rod Laver Arena.
But after pulling out of an Abu Dhabi tournament late last
month and admitting "I still feel the pain", a big question mark
hangs over how competitive Djokovic can be.
Having added mercurial former tour player Radek Stepanek to
a coaching team spearheaded by Andre Agassi, Djokovic only started hitting
tennis balls again in November.
He admits being sidelined has not been easy, and that
missing the US Open last year, the first Slam he has not played since 2005, was
"It's been a real roller-coaster ride for me for a
year-and-a-half with this issue. I've never had surgery in my life, I've never
had any major injuries that kept me away from the tour for such a long
time," he told Sport360 in Abu Dhabi.
"I never missed a Grand Slam in my career. It was a big
decision, a big call to make. I couldn't play anymore, there was no choice. It
was like, that's it, you can't lift your arm."
A decade after winning his first Melbourne Park title
Djokovic has slipped to 14 in the world, his lowest in 10 years, giving him
extra drive to make inroads at the season-opening major.
Also coming back from injuries are 2014 champion Stan
Wawrinka (knee), big-serving Canadian Milos Raonic (calf and wrist), and world
number one Rafael Nadal (knee).
At least they remain in contention, unlike Scot Andy Murray
(hip) and Japanese star Kei Nishikori (wrist) who both pulled out last week,
depriving the tournament of some serious star power.
The mighty Serena Williams, a 23-time Grand Slam champion,
has also decided against rushing into a comeback after giving birth to her
first child in September.
One of those who is fully fit, at 36, is defending champion
Roger Federer, who says the injuries and pullouts are no surprise.
"A lot of the guys are just touching 30-plus, you know.
Back in the day, at 30, a lot of guys were retiring - Edberg, Sampras," he
said at the season-ending World Tour Finals in London.
"When somebody is injured at 31, it's like, 'Oh my God,
how is this possible?' Actually, it's a normal thing."
Djokovic said he has learned much from his injury, and hoped
to use that knowledge to avoid having such a serious problem again.
"I've learned a lesson because I really want to avoid
getting to that stage of an injury ever in my career after this," he said.
On the women's side, world number three Garbine Muguruza, US
Open champion Sloane Stephens and upcoming French star Caroline Garcia have all
had injury-hit preparations.
Britain's Johanna Konta, a semi-finalist in Melbourne two
years ago, ended her Brisbane International campaign early last week with a
right hip injury.
"Hips take a massive beating," admitted Konta,
pointing to the game becoming more physical, with tournaments week in and week
"But so do knees, so do shoulders, so do ankles,
wrists. Take your pick. Back, lower back. And everything in between."