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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 December 2018

Roger Federer looks set for a serene march to grand slam No 20 at Australian Open

It was the announcement all tennis fans were expecting. Andy Murray will not be competing at the Australian Open due to the hip injury that has plagued him since midway through last season.

Perhaps the only surprise was that Murray, a five-time finalist in Melbourne, left it so late to pull out in the hope he would be fit enough to compete.

Anyone who saw the British No 1 hobbling around the Zayed Sports City practice courts last week, and in the subsequent one-set exhibition defeat to Roberto Bautista Agut, knew it would have taken something special for him to be ready for a best-of-five sets, two-week tournament weeks later.

Murray, 30, joins Japanese No 1 Kei Nishikori as an Australian Open absentee, but by the time the tournament starts on January 15, a host of other high-profile players could be joining the pair on the sidelines.

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World No 1 Rafael Nadal has not played since retiring from the ATP Finals with a knee injury in November. The Spaniard has since withdrawn from the Mubadala World Tennis Championship in Abu Dhabi and the Brisbane International to focus on his recovery.

Likewise Novak Djokovic, who was another high-profile withdrawal from the Abu Dhabi tournament and his traditional season curtain-raiser in Doha. The six-time Australian Open champion continues to recover from an elbow injury and will make a late decision on his participation.

Same goes for Stan Wawrinka, who pulled out of Abu Dhabi also, and was conspicuous by his absence from Brisbane and/or Chennai – the Swiss’ usual stop-offs before the Australian Open.

Even if all three former Melbourne champions pass themselves fit, and thus add some much-needed stardust to the men’s tournament, it is difficult to make a case for any of them as legitimate title contenders.

The injuries, the prolonged time away from competitive action, the lack of preparation all mean that even for players as accomplished and experienced as Nadal, Djokovic and Wawrinka, a genuine tilt at the Australian Open is a big ask.

Meanwhile, as the doom, gloom and uncertainty surrounds several leading players, Roger Federer is serenely going about his business.

Shunning the ATP Tour events in favour of representing Switzerland at the Hopman Cup, the mixed-gender teams event, Federer has looked refreshed, relaxed, and quite simply imperious. Five wins from five – three in the singles, two in mixed doubles – attest to how well his preparations are going.

Federer, 36, may have shown signs of age toward the end of last season, but the back complaint that restricted him at the ATP Finals appears to have been nothing more than a niggle. Based on the evidence in Perth this week, the 19-time grand slam champion is moving freely and hitting the ball sweetly, the six-week off-season seemingly enough time to recuperate.

It all spells bad news for Federer’s remaining Australian Open rivals. This being the same player who, after missing six months of 2016 to have knee surgery, signalled his return to action by winning his fifth Melbourne title. He did so while seeded 17th, outlasting three top 10 opponents over five sets – including Nadal in the final – en route to the trophy.

This year, Federer’s obstacles will be far less imposing. As the world No 2, he is guaranteed at least second seeding, and depending on Nadal’s participation could start the tournament top, which theoretically offers a more straightforward path to the final.

But it is the absence of star power that ultimately makes Federer such an overwhelming favourite to defend his title. Murray is definitely out, Nadal, Djokovic and Wawrinka will all, at the very least, be well short of their best. Between those four, 34 major titles have been won.

Where are the players with grand slam pedigree to trouble Federer in Melbourne?

Sooner or later the younger generation, led by the likes of Grigor Dimitrov, Alexander Zverev, and Dominic Thiem, will find themselves in the grand slam winners circle.

But at this stage, all signs point to Federer collecting grand slam No 20.