MELBOURNE, Australia – If they didn’t pull out of the Australian Open before it even began, it was because both former champions felt they could be competitive.
But after six months away, there was no way for Novak Djokovic and Stan Wawrinka to know exactly how their bodies and minds would react to getting back on the match court at a Grand Slam, in a best-of-five set situation.
Both came through beautifully in their first-round matches Tuesday.
Djokovic’s modified service motion cost him no velocity and little of its former effectiveness in a 6-1, 6-2, 6-4 victory over American lefty Donald Young.
Wawrinka, facing a harder hitter in Ricardas Berankis of Lithuania, dropped the third set but still pulled through 6-3, 6-4, 2-6, 7-6 (2).
Djokovic sharing the love
After he sealed the deal, the six-time Australian Open champion Djokovic dropped to his knees to and showed his appreciation for the Rod Laver Arena center court that has been so good to him.
“I just tried to embrace whatever emotions are coming, but at the same time trying to focus myself as much as I can on the present moment,” Djokovic said. “Well, the first two sets went extremely well, considering that I haven’t played for six months. The third was, you know, up and down a little bit, but in general was a great performance.”
Some pain, but it was victory pain
Wawrinka was quietly emotional.
He also didn’t necessarily pull up as well physically as Djokovic did. But that was to be expected.
“It’s great to be back. It’s great to win, for sure. Was a tough one in all aspect of the game, of the energy. But in general, I’m really happy to get through a match like that, to fight the way I did today, to win the match like this,” Wawrinka said.
“As I say, I still have some pain. It depends the way I’m moving, how I push on it. In general, it’s going the right direction. That’s the best news. To see that the knee is keeping it, that I can play a match with the stress, back being tight, with hesitation. The knee that doesn’t move even after three hours, so that’s great.”
MELBOURNE, Australia – Stan Wawrinka and his surgically-repaired knee traveled all the way to Australia without even knowing if he – they – would play.
Even the decision to fly down was made at the last minute.
Finally, after a practice on Saturday, Wawrinka gave his knee the green light.
There is still pain when he makes certain movements. He hasn’t played a match in six months, not even an exhibition match. He doesn’t even know if he can even get through a set or two – let alone a potential five-setter against his first-round opponent, Ricardas Berankis of Lithuania.
But the victory is in his presence in Melbourne. And the ability to practice with the best players in the game, to push the knee several hours a day and push through the inevitable little setbacks, was worth the trip even if he didn’t play.
Heavy practice schedule
Wawrinka practiced with Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. He practiced with Tomas Berdych and Gaël Monfils and Grigor Dimitrov. He didn’t spare himself.
“It’s a big victory. It’s the best that I could have dreamed when I had the surgery, is to be here sitting in front of you and to say, ‘Okay, I’m going to play the first match.’ That’s something really good from my side, especially from the knee. The knee is getting way better. I still have a lot of work to do physically and also tennis-wise to be to my top level,” Wawrinka said Saturday.
“I’m going to take the time I need for that. I know I need to get through those — I need to start somewhere anyway. I think here was a good start. It’s a good place to start, to get pushed, to see also mentally how I’m going to react, how I’m going to feel when I’m going to be playing matches.”
Wawrinka said that the decision to take a pass on the Tie Break Tens exhibition Wednesday was unrelated to the decision to play the Australian Open. He considers the format, the quick points, the pace, as something completely different – something he wasn’t ready for.
And when there is surgery involved, there are always fears that it won’t come back all the way.
After eight weeks on crutches, Wawrinka’s heavy-duty exercise as he began his rehab was … walking.
He wrestled with feeling too sorry for himself publicly, even if he felt terrible, lonely, sad at times.
Wawrinka has enough perspective to realize that there are far bigger problems in life than an athlete with an injury.
“It’s tough to explain because some people will always think, ‘C’mon, you have (an) amazing life, why you complain, why you complain about feeling not great? It’s always difficult, what you can tell people and what you have to keep for yourself,” he said. “For sure, I’m not comparing myself to a lot of people where they get a big problem in their life. It’s just an injury in a career. (But) it can be really tough for an athlete to get through this.”
Unlike the other injured stars, Wawrinka somehow didn’t fall out of the top 10 during his absence. That can change in a hurry, though, with semifinalist’s points to defend in Melbourne.
But he was gone so long, it’s easy to forget the impressive results he put in during the first half of the season. Wawrinka reached the final at Indian Wells, and at the French Open.
With Norman, he graduated from the “just below the top level” type of player to being a Grand Slam champion and a threat at nearly every tournament.
He wasn’t angry. He was hurt. Because he considers Norman like family.
“When you in a tough place like that as an athlete, you want the people who know you the best to stay around you, to stick with you. You want your team, your family to be here. They will help you the most to get back where you want to be,” he said. “For me, Magnus, he was my coach, but he was a friend, even closer than a friend. It was tough to know that he will not be here to start again with me.”
60 per cent return rate
The tally, so far, is that three of the five question marks will make their date in Melbourne.
Kei Nishikori wasn’t quite ready, and will start back in a week’s time at a Challenger in California.
Andy Murray had hip surgery and hopes to be back for the grass.
Djokovic’s situation seems positive for the moment, although we’ll know more when he plays his first match Tuesday against American Donald Young.
Raonic played a match in Brisbane, and filled in for Wawrinka in the Tie Break Tens. That he lost in Brisbane to young Aussie Alex de Minaur, in hindsight, doesn’t seem nearly as bad a loss given that the teenager has done since then.
But we’ll also know more when Raonic faces Lukas Lacko of Slovakia on Tuesday.
The “big return” on the men’s side at the Australian Open wasn’t as complete, or as edifying, as it would have been had all the injured players returned at full strength.
Now that he’s out of the Australian Open, as well, a long trip to Australia for naught, Murray will head back to Great Britain to assess his situation.
After diligently working on rehab to try to avoid hip surgery, the Brit intimated earlier this week that the surgery option can no longer be completely off the table.
And that’s a sad state of affairs.
Nishikori in Newport Beach
Nishikori has taken a wild card into the Newport Beach Challenger, one of two new events sponsored by Oracle (whose owner, Larry Ellison, owns the Indian Wells event).
It will be Nishikori’s first appearance at the Challenger level since he lost to Amer Delic in the second round of the Champaign Challenger in Nov. 2010.
That’s a huge boost for the inaugural edition of the event, which takes place the second week of the Australian Open.
For Nishikori, the appearance in a Challenger is a savvy move, assuming he has progressed as expected from the wrist issue. He, too, wanted nothing more than to avoid surgery. He has seen how so many talented players have struggled to return after being operated on their wrists.
This way, he will be able to ease back into tennis slowly, after being out since losing in the first round of the Rogers Cup in Montreal to Gaël Monfils in early August.
He also can return playing best-of-three sets, rather than the best-of-five Grand Slam format.
Tennis.Life also is told that Nishikori has accepted a wild card into the $125,000 Dallas Challenger the week after Newport Beach. If true, that’s even better. He also is scheduled to play the inaugural New York Open in mid-February.
Nadal in the house
On the positive side, Rafael Nadal has arrived in Melbourne.
The world No. 1 played just one match before withdrawing from the ATP Tour Finals in London in November, with his right knee giving him trouble again.
Before that, he had pulled out of the Basel tournament, and gave opponent Filip Krajinovic a walkover in the quarterfinals of the Paris Masters.
Nada withdrew from Abu Dhabi and from the Brisbane warmup event.
Along with Djokovic and Stan Wawrinka, Nadal is scheduled to test out the knee in the Tie Break Tens exhibition next Wednesday in Margaret Court Arena.
He is arriving a good 10 days before the Australian Open starts.
The Swiss No. 2 has been very low-profile on social media for a month. But he has been on Snapchat. And today’s posting was the best-news snap for his fans.
Wawrinka left Geneva for Abu Dhabi Thursday night. There’s a direct flight to Melbourne from there, leaving some three hours later, on Friday morning.
So it appears he will give it a go at the Tie Break Tens, and go from there.
Expectations, after knee surgery, with no matches and the best-of-five format, will no doubt be rock-bottom.
But with the loss of Murray and Nishikori, that’s at least two of the top guns who are at least going to try.
As for Milos Raonic, he lost his first match in Brisbane to young Australian wild card Alex de Minaur, 6-4, 6-4. But at least he’s back.
The former No. 1 withdrew from the Abu Dhabi exhibition when he experienced pain in his elbow during practice before his first match.
A day later, Djokovic pulled out of this week’s ATP Tour event in Doha.
He will be in Australia. Djokovic has signed on for Tie Break Tens event, as well as the Kooyong Classic that takes place a 10-minute drive away from Melbourne Park. It’s not known how many matches Djokovic will actually play there.
The Serb hasn’t played since retiring in the second set of his quarterfinal match at Wimbledon against Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic.
Stan Wawrinka was optimistic – even a week ago – about being about to return to action after knee surgery at the six-man exhibition in Abu Dhabi in 10 days.
On Wednesday, the Swiss star announced that he won’t be ready in time.
“Unfortunately I won’t be able to play in Abu Dhabi this year as I’m not ready yet to complete at this level. Together with my team, I’m working hard and we will do everything to be ready in time for the Australian Open” Wawrinka said in a statement.
“I’m sad that I won’t be able to play in front of the great fans at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship but I need to be patient and give my body the time it needs.”
Wawrinka didn’t enter any of the various warmup events before the big one in Melbourne. There were choices: Doha, Brisbane, Pune, Auckland or Sydney. But if he feels he’s ready, and wants matches, no doubt they’d be willing to give him a wild card.
It does seem likely that he will start straight up again at the Australian Open – assuming, again, that he is ready. The best-of-five set format is a higher threshold than a regular ATP Tour event.
Not everyone is going to be ready
Of all the top players who missed significant time in the second half of the season, Novak Djokovic seems the most ready to get started. The Serb has his new, full team by his side.
Canadian Milos Raonic already is in Melbourne and has a hit-and-giggle planned with fellow New Balance athlete Steve Smith (the Australian cricket captain) at Melbourne Park Thursday.
However, he also has pulled out of the Abu Dhabi event. That may mean something, or nothing. We shall see.
Raonic had planned to go straight from the weekend event to the ATP Tour event in Brisbane. (Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal plan to do this as well).
Murray completed a training block in Miami and returned home before he heads to Abu Dhabi.
Kei Nishikori, who is training at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., typically holds a media day for Japanese and other media around this time of the season, to kick off the new year.
At this point, there is no media day planned.
Nishikori plans to return in Brisbane the first week of January. But obviously that will depend – as with Wawrinka – on the state of his injured wrist as he returns from a long layoff.
As for Nadal, there are a few unsubstantiated murmurs out there. And it doesn’t appear – from the limited information you can get on the web, that he has practiced a ton as the Mallorcan looks after his knee.
So that’s a wait-and-see – for both Abu Dhabi, and the tournaments after that.
To replace Raonic and Wawrinka, the exhibition has drafted Kevin Anderson and Next-Gen star Andrey Rublev.
Anderson plans to play the ATP event in Pune, India the following week. Rublev is signed on for the one in nearby Doha.
The exhibition already already has the new roster up on its website, so clearly the organizers were prepared.
Stan Wawrinka said the second knee surgery was the hardest.
That one was to fix a hole in the cartilage of the left knee, the scars of an issue he said began all the way back at the 2016 US Open.
But it came to a head during this year’s grass-court season, and the 32-year-old Swiss star hasn’t played since.
Wawrinka met the media at the Geneva Country Club on Friday to update his state of mind – and knee – as he prepares to return in 2018.
From the media reports that have come out of Switzerland, Wawrinka didn’t mince words. Which is one of his finer qualities.
Shock, surprise at Norman departure
Per the Tribune de Genève, Wawrinka said longtime coach Magnus Norman’s decision to leave him was “a real surprise for me, a real shock – even more so knowing that I needed to lean on him, as part of my team, at that very moment.”
He said that during the toughest moments of your career, you need to be able to count on those closest to you. Clearly, he felt a sense of betrayal that’s going to take some time to get over.
“Nothing positive about it”
Wawrinka also said well-meaning people told him the break would be good for him.
But Wawrinka said he found absolutely nothing positive about it – not a single, solitary thing. He only picked up his racquet again at the end of October.
Wawrinka still has Yannick Fattebert, the low-profile coach who has been with him on a regular basis for five years as Norman has gotten all the public accolades. But he said he’s not ruling out looking for a second coach to full Norman’s role.
But he added that he’s not in a rush. “I’d need someone who could bring new things to training,” he said.
Eight weeks on crutches
“Obviously, after two operations, spending eight weeks on crutches, that’s quite simply the worst thing for a high-level athlete. Not only are you away from the court, you’re really really far away. Total inactivity. It’s clear it was a very difficult period. You have to get the muscles trained again, find your reflexes again,” he said in a television interview.
“My goal is to play an exhibition at Abu Dhabi Dec. 26 to get some matches, test myself a little, see where I’m at,” he added. “The goal is to do the maximum to be back at 100 per cent. At the moment, everything is positive relative to that … I’m too eager to have more results, to finish my career properly. I know I still have a few years ahead of me at a high level.”
Not 100 per cent
Wawrinka said that as of today, he’s not all the way back – either mentally, or tennis-wise.
“But I’m working hard,” he said. “It seems to be going in the right direction.”
Wawrinka said he wanted to play another four years. But he was more focused on the immediate goal of being 100 per cent in order to play the Australian Open next month.
He plans to return to full-out training on Monday.
Typically, the player will initiate these things. But in this particular case, it appears to be Norman who is taking his leave, for family reasons.
Mutual decision? Maybe not
The Swede, still just 41, coached Thomas Johansson and Robin Soderling before joining Team Wawrinka.
“After much thought I have decided to dedicate my future to my family. With two young kids at home, now is the right time for me to be with them. I could not have had a better player to work with and this has been one of the most difficult decisions I have ever had to make”, Norman said in a statement.
“I’m really honoured to have worked with Stan who is a great tennis player, but more importantly a fantastic person. I want to thank the whole team behind Stan for all the work over the last four years. It’s been a teamwork and a privilege from the first day.”
Here’s the statement from Wawrinka, per his management.
“I would like to thank Magnus for the amazing four years we had together. I will always be grateful for the work and the time he spent on me to make me improve and become a three-time Grand Slam Champion. He was not only part of my team but also part of the family. For now I’m focusing on my rehabilitation and I will take time to decide with my team the necessary next steps,” Wawrinka said.
“I have played a huge amount of tennis since coming back from my hip injury in Washington and unless I want this to escalate to an injury that requires surgery, I need to listen to my body and my team,” Kyrgios said in a statement released on Twitter.
“This year hasn’t been as successful as I would have liked, especially at the Slams although it has been positive in some other areas. It’s been no secret that I have had some sad moments to deal with away from the court which have added to my disappointments throughout the year.”
Berdych’s back woes
Berdych, who began the season in the top 10, is currently down at No. 18 and announced he’s skipping the final two weeks of the season because of persistent back pain.
It had been fairly evident in recent months that he was a mere shadow of his former self.
“I have been playing matches with back pain since Wimbledon and in my last match in Beijing I felt like it was not getting better,” Berdych wrote on Twitter.
“And I was advised by my medical team to give it a few weeks of rest, and to have treatment, in order to be completely (healthy) and pain free and to be ready to compete at the start of 2018.”
Early-birds club membership full
The two players join an ever-larger group of top-20 players on the men’s side who have called an early end to their season.
Novak Djokovic: Retired after the first set of his quarterfinal match against Berdych at Wimbledon, announced July 26 he was shutting it down for 2017.
Kei Nishikori: Lost his first match at the Rogers Cup in Montreal, then felt a “pop” in the wrist while practicing in Cincinnati. Announced Aug. 16 he was out for the season with a wrist issue, but was opting not to have surgery.
Milos Raonic: Lost his first match at the Rogers Cup in Montreal, pulled out of Cincinnati and the US Open. Underwent a procedure on his wrist, then returned for the ATP Tour event in Tokyo. Won his first match with a one-handed backhand, then withdrew before his second match with a calf issue. Raonic withdrew from the final two events of the season earlier this week.
Not only is Stan Wawrinka skipping the Rogers Cup and Cincinnati to heal his injured knee, he’s skipping the rest of the season.
So the reigning US Open champion will not defend his title.
He’s having a “medical intervention” on his knee.
“I am sad to announce that after talking with my team and doctor I had to make a difficult decision to undergo a medical intervention on my knee. This was the only solution to make sure I will be able to compete at the top level for many more years,” Wawrinka said in a statement.
“This is obviously extremely disappointing, but I’m already looking ahead and planning my recovery. I love this sport and I will work hard to get back to my top level and play many more years. And I also want to take this opportunity to thank my fans for sending plenty of messages of support during the last couple of days. I will see you all in 2018.”
Both 2016 US Open finalists out
Wawrinka, ranked No. 4, joins current No. 5 Novak Djokovic on the sidelines for the rest of the season.
That means that the two players who reached the US Open final a year ago will not be there for the final Grand Slam of the season later this month.
Will Andy No. 1 Andy Murray, who withdrew from the Rogers Cup next week, be next?
It wouldn’t be all that shocking, at this point.
First time in almost half a century that a men’s #USOpen draw has neither finalist from the previous year. In 1970, Rosewall beat Roche.
So the Swiss star has decided to skip Montreal and Cincinnati. The two Masters 1000 series tournaments, which take place on back-to-back weeks, are a major grind.
“After much backwards and forwards and consultations with my doctors and my team unfortunately I have decided to skip Canada and Cincinnati to be on the safe side, even though I’ve been battling hard to make these events,” Wawrinka said in a statement.
“Hugely disappointing for my fans and myself that I have to make this decision. But I need to be 100 per cent confident before I resume competition (until) the injury that plagued me in Wimbledon has been resolved. My team and I are doing everything possible to make this a speedy recovery.”
“Stan has always been loyal to our tournament and we’re obviously disappointed he won’t be here this year. He is one of the best players in the world and we wish him a quick recovery and best of luck for the rest of the season,” Lapierre said in a statement.
Wawrinka is ranked No. 4, with Novak Djokovic (who also won’t be at either event) down to No. 5. The top three players in the rankings are still in both events.
Come to think of it, Andy Murray also has been pretty quiet lately. Let’s hope that’s a sign of good news, not bad news.
Martin Klizan of Slovakia also has pulled out of the Rogers Cup. Which means American Donald Young, who gave Kei Nishikori such a tussle late Tuesday night at the Citi Open, is promoted into the main draw.
Next in with Wawrinka’s withdrawal will be Kyle Edmund of Great Britain.
It had been nearly a year since the last shocker like this, when the top three seeds at an ATP Tour event all lost their opening matches.
But in that case, on clay at a small tournament in Kitzbuhel two weeks after last year’s Wimbledon, we weren’t talking about three of the top six players in the world – including last year’s Wimbledon champion and runner-up.
On Tuesday at Queen’s Club, the seeds went three, two, one – out. It’s the first time in the Open era that has ever happened there.
No. 3 seed Milos Raonic was the first to take the court, and the first to bow out. After reaching the final a year ago, the 26-year-old Canadian lost 7-6 (5), 7-6 (8) to 21-year-old Australian Thanasi Kokkinakis. He had eight break points in the first set, and converted none. He led the second-set tiebreak 6-3, and lost it 10-8.
Following them onto the court was No. 2 Stan Wawrinka, not a champion grass-court player but still the No. 3 player in the world. He lost to the unseeded 35-year-old Feliciano Lopez 7-6 (4), 7-5.
Both had 16 aces. Both had 88 per cent success rates with their first serves. But the Spaniard Lopez – unusually, by the standards of his countrymen, an aggressive customer on the grass – handled Wawrinka’s second serve far better than the Swiss did his. And by the finest of margins, he got through.
Then came No. 1.
For all the British hand-wringing over the last few months about Andy Murray’s form – all of it, months ahead, pre-doom and gloom for The Championships – he played well in Paris. Murray reached the semifinals and it took former French Open champion Wawrinka more than 4 1/2 hours to beat him.
Murray's run of breaking serve in 136 consecutive matches (stretching back to 2015 US Open) comes to an end as he fails to break today.
The defending champion came to Queen’s Club with some momentum. But less than 24 hours after announcing he would donate his prize money from the tournament to the victims of the Grenfell Tower tragedy – he went out.
He did not, as expected, play fellow Brit Aljaz Bedene, whom he defeated 6-3, 6-4 in the second round of the same tournament a year ago.
Bedene withdrew with a wrist injury Tuesday morning. The lucky loser, Aussie Jordan Thompson, was ranked more than 30 spots below Bedene. But Murray had never faced him. And Thompson came in with a little grass momentum after reaching the final of a Challenger the previous week.
But still … Murray went out 7-6 (4), 6-2 and dealt his Wimbledon title defense preparation a bit of a blow. He hadn’t lost at Queen’s Club since 2014. Thompson played great tennis. But it all went downhill when Murray was up a mini-break in the first set tiebreak.
First, a double fault. Then, one of the worst drop-shot attempts he’ll make all year. Suddenly, he lost both points on his serve. The rest was not pretty to watch.
World No. 1 Andy Murray has lost before the quarterfinals in 6 of his 10 tournaments this year. In 2016, that happened twice in 17 events
“This tournament has given me great preparation in the past. When I have done well here, Wimbledon has tended to go pretty well, too,” Murray told the media in London. “But, if I play like that, I certainly won’t win Wimbledon. I can play better than that.”
Worst British effort in 34 years
Murray has won at Queen’s Club five times, including three of the last four years.
He was the headmaster of a seriously futile effort by the British contingent this year. All five of them – Murray along with Kyle Edmund, wild cards James Ward and Cameron Norrie and lucky loser Liam Broady – lost first round.
According to the ATP, it was the first time the Brits went winless at Queen’s Club since 1983.
The carnage in Kitzbuhel a year ago was a blip compared to this.
Top seed Dominic Thiem, at No. 9 ranked just one spot higher than he is now but not nearly the player he has become this year, had played every week but three since the Australian Open. He fulfilled a commitment to his home-country event, but lost to his far more experienced countryman Jürgen Melzer in a tough combination of circumstances.
The No. 2 seed was Philipp Kohlschreiber. The No. 3 was Marcel Granollers.
This was in a totally different league.
Terrible Tuesday takes the zip right out of a superb event, which added 2,000 seats to its stadium court this year and boasted a terrific field.
Now? The top half is wide open for No. 5 seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who does have an in-form Gilles Muller playing the best tennis of his long career ahead of him in the second round.
The bottom half? A Grigor Dimitrov vs. Lopez semi-final would be an attractive grass-court matchup. But it lacks the glamour that the tournament deserves.