Denmark’s Caroline Wozniacki and Switzerland’s Roger Federer smile during annual Kids Tennis Day event on Rod Laver Arena ahead of the Australian Open tennis championships in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)

After one for the ages, Australian Open now a fitness test

MELBOURNE, Australia — With Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic among the walking wounded and Serena Williams already deciding not to defend her title, injuries and absentees have been the focus of attention ahead of the Australian Open.

That’s not bothering Roger Federer, who is returning as defending champion just 12 months after entering the season-opening Grand Slam tournament seeded 17th and uncertain of his prospects after six months off the tour with an injured left knee.

He beat Nadal in a five-set final for his 18th Grand Slam title — and his first since 2012 — and later won Wimbledon.

“I just thought that the game and the wins weren’t going to come … because I would just run into a red-hot Djokovic or Murray or Nadal or somebody and my game wasn’t going to be good enough,” Federer recalled. “I had all these great five-setters and, at the end, the epic match against Rafa. After six, seven matches, you start feeling like a different player, that you can’t miss anymore. The fifth set (of the final) was maybe the best set I ever played.

“What a comeback it was and it was definitely the highlight of the year.”

Second-seeded Federer and No. 14-seeded Djokovic have almost traded places.

This time, Federer breezily walked into the Australian Open drawcarrying the trophy just a few days after helping Switzerland win the Hopman Cup mixed team even. His 2017 comeback could be inspiration for the likes of Djokovic, who has won the Australian title a record six times but has been sidelined since Wimbledon with a right elbow injury.

They’re in the same half of the draw — along with No. 4 Alexander Zverev, No. 5 Dominc Thiem, No. 7 David Goffin and No. 9 Stan Wawrinka, the 2014 Australian Open winner who is also returning from injury.

Nadal skipped the year-end championship last November and delayed the start of his 2018 season, so he’s also had only exhibition matches to see how his right knee has recovered.

“If I’m not feeling good, probably I will not be here,” Nadal said after his error-filled loss to Richard Gasquet in an exhibition this week. “So that’s the good news.”

Five-time finalist Andy Murray withdrew more than a week ahead of time, deciding to have surgery on a right hip problem that had kept him off the tour since Wimbledon. Kei Nishikori also withdrew.

And so if the 2017 Australian Open was one for the ages — the revival of the Federer- Nadal rivalry and another Williams sisters final — the 2018 edition is shaping as a survival of the fittest.

Serena Williams, who was pregnant when she beat Venus here last year to claim her 23rd major title, gave birth to her first child — Alexis Olympia — in September. She said it didn’t leave her enough time to feel confident of winning a major.

The No. 1-ranking changed seven times in 2017, with five different women assuming top spot — three for the first time.

Venus Williams says Serena is “here in spirit” supporting her in Australia, where she’s hopeful of ending an almost decade-long Grand Slam title drought. At 37, Venus is seeded No. 5, coming off a loss to former No. 1 Anglique Kerber in Sydney and has a tougher opener against Belinda Bencic, who combined with Federer last week to win the Hopman Cup.

“I feel my biggest expectation is from myself,” Venus Williams said, dismissing any notion that age or expectations will weigh heavily on her. “No one ever wants to let themselves down.”

She led the WTA Tour in prize money last year ahead of Wimbledon champion Garbine Muguruza and Simona Halep, who ended the year at No. 1.

Entering as the No. 1 seed for the first time at a major and at a tournament where she’s had back-to-back first-round exits, two-time French Open finalist Halep opens against teenage wild-card entry Destanee Aiava. She could face two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova in the third round and Karolina Pliskova in the quarters.

Muguruza, who withdrew from the Sydney International before the quarterfinals with a sore right thigh after retiring during her first match at the Brisbane International because of cramping, is in the same quarter as U.S. Open finalist Madison Keys, Australian Open 2016 champion Kerber and five-time major winner Maria Sharapova, returning to Melbourne two years after a failed doping test here led to a 15-month suspension.

Muguruza is expecting the constant changes at the top of the women’s game to continue in 2018.

“I don’t feel there’s somebody that different from the rest,” Muguruza said. “This is going to be a very interesting year. A lot of changing, I feel.”

No. 2 Caroline Wozniacki, who hasn’t won a major and last appeared in a Grand Slam final in 2014, is on the bottom half of the draw with Williams and has French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko and last year’s Australian semifinalist CoCo Vandeweghe in her quarter.

While there were four different Grand Slam singles winners on the women’s side, with Ostapenko (French) and Sloane Stephens (U.S. Open) claiming their first titles, the men’s side rolled back the years with Federer and Nadal each winning two apiece.

Djokovic, a surprise second-round loser here last year, is hoping he can get fit enough to change that in 2018.

“I’m still not 100 per cent — hopefully in three or four days I will be there,” Djokovic said after beating Thiem in an exhibition match at Kooyong this week. “I played better than I thought might happen, and most importantly I played without pain.”

The 12-time major winner said he was doing everything possible to be ready in time for the Australian.

“I’ll be over the moon if I can play,” he said. “Everything at the moment is going in the right direction.”

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