Tennis

Rafael Nadal’s Australian Open in doubt due to sore back

Spaniard suffering from back injury, unsure if he would face Djere in his opener

World No. 2 Rafael Nadal admitted yesterday he had been "suffering" for 15 days with a sore back and could not guarantee he'll play the Australian Open, with the injury threatening to derail his bid for a record 21st Grand Slam.

The Spaniard sat out of Spain's ATP Cup campaign in warm-up week and he hasn't played a competitive match since the ATP Finals in London in November.

His only appearance since was an exhibition game against Dominic Thiem in Adelaide nine days ago, where he first experienced stiffness in his back.

"Not great," he said of the back injury on the eve of the first Grand Slam of the year.

"It's true that for the last 15 days, I have been suffering. In the beginning, the muscle was just a little bit tired, but I feel (now) a little bit more stiff than usual."

The 34-year-old has been hitting the practice courts at Melbourne Park in a desperate bid to be fit and firing for the Australian Open, which starts today.

Nadal insisted the injury was "not serious", but remained unsure whether he would take to the court for his first-round match against Laslo Djere of Serbia which is scheduled for tomorrow.

"The muscle is still tight, so it is difficult to play with freedom of movement," he said.

"We are doing everything. My physio is here, the doctors here, everybody is helping me in all possible ways. I hope to be ready, that's all. I know sometimes, things change quick."

Nadal, who has a history of back problems, refused to be drawn into whether the 14-day mandatory hotel quarantine players endured on arrival in Australia contributed to the injury.

There has been a mounting injury toll ahead of the year's opening Grand Slam, with Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka and defending champion Sofia Kenin among those carrying niggles.

"I'm not a big fan of finding excuses. When things happen, you need to find a way to get through," he said.

Nadal is looking to edge ahead of Roger Federer, who also has 20 Slam titles to his name, with the Swiss skipping the Australian Open and planning to make his comeback at Doha next month.

Nadal, the 2009 Australian Open champion, said being healthy was his top priority.

"The only thing that I can do is stay positive, work on recovery and do all the things that I can. Then I hope the situation will improve. Let's see," he said.

If he does take his place in the draw, Nadal is on course to meet Greek rising star Stefanos Tsitsipas in the quarter-finals.

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Nadal's absence would leave world No. 1 Novak Djokovic as the hot favourite to win an unprecedented ninth title at Melbourne Park.

Yesterday, the 33-year-old Serb likened his relationship with the Australian Open to "a love affair", admitting he still gets nervous walking on court despite his years at the top.

Djokovic opens his campaign for an 18th Grand Slam crown today, when he faces France's Jeremy Chardy, and he is already feeling jittery.

"Every match, every match. Every single match," he said when asked if he still felt nervous despite being in his 17th Australian Open.

"It's just that I managed over the years to train myself."

Djokovic claimed his 17th Grand Slam in last year's gripping final in Melbourne, when he came back from 2-1 down to edge Thiem in five sets. - AFP

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