By Ros Satar, in Melbourne
MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA – It is a very different looking top four that will take to the court this year, but will the script be different?
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 Rafael Nadal
- Slam Finals 23
- Slam Titles 16
After such a triumphant return from injury, for Rafael Nadal to limp out of the Nitto ATP World Tour Finals seemed particularly cruel. That he has not had a match leading into the Australian Open is a little more concerning after pulling out of both the Mubadala World Tennis Championships and Brisbane.
However, he felt in much better fettle when he spoke to the press ahead of the tournament.
“Is the first time I am here without playing official match in my career. Is new situation for me. But I feel good. I feel that I had good week and a half of practices.
“Remain this afternoon and tomorrow, the last practice before the competition start for me. I really hope to be ready. I feel myself more or less playing well.”
A surprise for those earnest members of the crowd milling about on Friday was to witness a practice match, held in Margaret Court Arena, between Nadal and Dominic Thiem. It is not unusual of course for the top players to get together for practice sets, but with lines-judges, ballkids and an umpire, under match conditions, with a crowd?
“I wanted to play couple of close competition matches. I played in Kooyong once. The club in Kooyong is great, but at the same time the conditions of play are completely different from here.
“We decided to play another match. Talking with the Australian Open, yeah, they give us the chance to play like an open practice but closer to the match for the crowd.
“I have a good relationship with Dominic [Thiem]. I spoke to him about that. He was very happy to make that happen, too. We did it. It was a good practice.”
 Roger Federer
- Slam Finals 29
- Slam Titles 19
With the Big Five decimated by injury, leaving just two and maybe a half, if you added Stan Wawrinka and Novak Djokovic together, Roger Federer emerges as the fittest of them all. He looked relaxed in Perth at the Hopman Cup and he seems to have made piece with the idea he might never have a year like 2017 again.
“This year I hope to win the first few rounds and get rolling hopefully, whereas last year I was just hoping to win. It was more of a ‘let’s see what happens’ kind of tournament.
“If you’re in the draw, you give yourself a chance. That’s what happened for me last year. All ended up way better than I thought it would.”
With the rest of the Big Five now experiencing their own issues, whether testing themselves post-injury, or in the case of Andy Murray now on the long road to rehab, post hip surgery, whether he likes it or not, Federer is a firm favourite to do it all again. Not that he cares much for that:
“At the end of the day, it’s all just talk beforehand. The draws are always tough, you know, I must admit. Never look at a draw and think, That was lucky, that was a bad draw.
“Okay, I have even more points to defend this year rather than last year. Last year I was looking at slipping outside the top 30. This year that’s not going to happen.”
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 Grigor Dimitrov
- Slam Finals 0
- Slam Titles 0
Things could almost have been so different if Grigor Dimitrov had gotten the better of Nadal in last year’s semi-finals. It felt as though he was ready to take that next step, and indeed the endof the season saw Dimitrov back up his first Masters final (Cincinnati) with the Nitto ATP World Tour Finals title.
It was almost like the heartbreak of losing that semi-final to Nadal was what was the eventual spur of a sprint to the end of the year.
“I was thinking, How did I lose that match almost? I saw on the breakpoints, for example, I couldn’t have done anything else. I played the right shot, the right thing.
“But he came through with his game. That was it. I’ve learned so much from that match. There’s so many, like, bittersweet memories from it, I kind of set up a great year for me. I think I really, really learned a lot from it.
“After I came back to Europe, played good indoors, had kind of a good start of the year. Yeah, I mean, hopefully I have more of those matches.”
It has not been a bad start to the year – he did not defend his Brisbane title but played some solid tennis to start the year and having managed a full season with no njuries last year (and look where it put him), Dimitrov may well be one to watch.
“[Brisbane] was early in the year, I had to play against very tough opponents. The draw was very strong. I knew I had to go three to four, five matches back-toback. I was still practicing even before the tournament began. I was still kind of in my offseason mode.
“To me, the result wasn’t that important. It was more how I’m going to work myself into the matches, how I’m going to feel, because I still didn’t have enough rest from last year. I kind of kept on going with the same regime of practicing and traveling. That kind of gets a bit of energy out of you.
“But I think I’m feeling pretty good, healthy, to start. I mean, there’s no complaints. Body feels great. The whole week I’ve been practicing well. The only thing right now is actually to get out there and perform.”
 Alexander Zverev
- Slam Finals 0
- Slam Titles 0
By his own admission at the Hopman Cup, Alexander Zverev was not playing his best tennis at the start of the year, but his focus has quickly moved on from the fun and giggles format of the team invitational to the real business of living up to the hype of being the next best thing in men’s tennis.
“I feel a lot better now than I did at the Hopman Cup. I’ve said that always, I will take Hopman Cup as my off-season still. And I was doing a lot of training there, I was doing a lot of hard training there before matches.”
As Zverev explains, he has not got to World No. 4 by accident, with two Masters titles in 2017 to help bolste that profile, but with that ranking now comes the continued expectation that he will have to measure up to that.
“I think improving the Grand Slam performances is one thing. I mean, the furthest I’ve got was to the fourth round of Wimbledon. A lot of times not because I played bad, but because I played very good opponents. I lost to Nadal here. I lost to Raonic in Wimbledon. Every time in five sets.
“That’s nothing to worry about too much. But obviously that’s one goal for me this year.”
Last year his older brother Mischa capped off a great comeback from injury-ridden years to up-end Murray in the fourth round, and this year the brothers Zverev are scheduled to clash in the third round.
“I think it’s going to be a very special moment for all of us. I mean, two brothers playing at a Grand Slam together and playing each other is something you won’t see very often. If it happens, of course I will want to win. I think he will want to win. It will be a happy moment for I think the whole family.”
The Australian Open starts on 15 January.
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