Novak Djokovic made a resounding return on Wednesday after six months out with an elbow injury, declaring he felt “great” after beating world number five Dominic Thiem 6-1, 6-4 at the Kooyong Classic.
The Serbian 12-time Grand Slam winner was in good form, and full of optimism, after his first competitive outing since losing a Wimbledon quarter-final to Tomas Berdych last July.
“I feel great, I was eager to get onto the court,” he said after playing with a flesh-coloured sleeve on his right arm.
“I had a great opponent, it was a test for me to see where I am, how the work we did pays off on court. It worked pretty well.”
The former world number one, who will be chasing a record seventh Australian Open crown next week, had pulled out of the Mubadala World Tennis Championship in Abu Dhabi, raising concerns over whether he would be fit enough to play at Melbourne Park.
“There was a doubt, especially after I pulled out of the first week of the year,” he admitted.
“I personally didn’t know what’s going to happen. We did some treatment and obviously gave it a lot of thought. Luckily for me I’m here and so I’m hoping in the next four, five days everything will go well and I’ll be ready for the Open.”
While pleased at his progress, Djokovic, who has dropped to 14 in the world, admitted he still had work to do ahead of the opening Grand Slam of the year.
“I don’t want to be over-confident, but I’m very, very happy with how it went today,” added the 30-year-old.
“I don’t say I’m at 100 per cent, I can only say that when I get the feel of a tournament. Ideally I would have had another tournament before the start of the Open, but it was not meant to be.
“I’ll take whatever I can — one or two matches here will be good preparation.”
Thiem, who only arrived in Melbourne on Monday night from Doha after four days in bed with a virus, presented only a minimal challenge to the recharged Serb.
“I’m free of fever and healthy again,” the Austrian said. “I’m still jet-lagged and was slow at the beginning of the match. I’ll sleep, eat and train and not do too much. I’ll be fine for the Open.”
Australian Matthew Ebden, back on court after an injury-marred 2017, defeated Marin Cilic 6-7 (3), 6-4, 7-5 in another match at the exhibition tournament.
World number six Cilic won the opener but found his game not quite up to competitive level as Ebden sneaked out the second set and then won a tight third.
Cilic, last year’s losing Wimbledon finalist against Roger Federer, heads into his final practice days for the Australian Open content with his form.
“The most important thing is to feel the conditions, to get comfortable,” he said. “It’s important to find a good rhythm.
“Overall, I’m quite happy with my level. I was feeling the ball well and hitting cleanly from both sides.”
Djokovic with new service reduced motion: 2018 vs. before pic.twitter.com/MtRIAoEfjN
— BreakPointBR (@BreakPointBR) January 10, 2018
The Russian is climbing back up the rankings following her ban, with her semi-final run in Shenzhen last week taking her up to No. 47 in the world.
Sharapova, a champion in Melbourne in 2008, will be unseeded at the Australian Open and is a dangerous floater in the draw.
At last year's US Open, which was her first Grand Slam back from suspension, Sharapova drew Simona Halep in the opening round and defeated the second-seeded Romanian in three close sets.
In the absence of defending champion Serena Williams, Sharapova has been chosen to join Roger Federer at the Australian Open draw on Thursday (19:00 local time, noon Dubai time). The draw will be streamed live on www.ausopen.com.
World number one Rafael Nadal lost his first match of the year 6-4, 7-5 to Richard Gasquet at the Kooyong Classic on Tuesday, but said he was happy after his troublesome knee held up “fine”.
Nadal’s knee injury hampered the end of his 2017 season and forced him to skip last week’s Brisbane International, but he was able to give it a workout at the non-tour event in Melbourne.
Though he lost in straight sets, the Spaniard said he would keep working hard until the start of the Australian Open at Melbourne Park on Monday.
“I”m very happy to be back in Australia,” he said. “I had a heavy year in 2017 and I started my preparation later than usual.
“But I’ve arrived in plenty of time. It’s great to get the feeling once again of playing a match. This was a good test for me after some good training, that’s the most important thing.”
The 16-time Grand Slam winner was far from his best in the exhibition encounter against a player he has beaten 15-0 on the ATP Tour in a rivalry dating back to junior days.
Nadal, 31, heads the entry list for the Australian Open and said he will be ready to front up for the first round.
“The knee is fine,” he said in answer to the inevitable question.
“I’m here. If I was not feeling good I would not be here, so that’s good news. I’ll train hard over the next few days for the Australian Open, I will be ready.”
Nadal is not playing any more matches at Kooyong, but he is also scheduled to turn out for a Tie Break Tens tournament at Melbourne Park on Wednesday evening.
Gasquet, who missed Kooyong last year through illness and injury, was happy to get even an informal win over the Spaniard.
“It’s always a pleasure to play Rafa — I hope to beat him one day on the ATP before retiring. He’s a friend of mine and it’s great to play him,” he said.
“I’m happy with how I’m playing after a test against Rafa, who along with Federer is the best in history.”
Gasquet took the opening set, relying on a single break for 5-4 before serving it out against an opponent still trying to shake off the rust of inactivity.
The Frenchman found himself in more of a battle in the second set despite going up a double break for 3-0.
The deficit barely bothered Nadal, who showed some of his classic form in closing the gap to 3-3. Gasquet forced Nadal to save break points throughout as the pair stayed level-pegging.
But the Frenchman finally broke for 6-5 and claimed victory with a smash winner on his first match point a game later.
Separately, Spain’s Pablo Carreno Busta defeated Belgian world number seven David Goffin 1-6, 7-6 (4), 6-3.
In the women’s competition, Germany’s Andrea Petkovic rallied to defeat Australian teenager Destanee Aiava 3-6, 6-3, 6-2 in windy conditions.