When you are ranked No 2 in the world behind one of the greatest players of all time there is clearly no need to panic, but Rafael Nadal could be forgiven for going into the Australian Open next week with one or two negative thoughts in his mind.
The French Open champion, acknowledged as the best clay court player on the planet, has not won a tournament since his triumph at Roland Garros last June and his preparations for the year's first Grand Slam tournament were disrupted yesterday when he retired hurt from his first-round match in the Sydney International.
The Spaniard, who was trailing Australia's Chris Guccione 6-5 in the first set, complained of a pain in his right thigh.
While Nadal insisted that his withdrawal was purely a precautionary measure, there is no doubt that he has been struggling to regain the heights he scaled last summer, when he followed up his superb clay court season by reaching the final at Wimbledon. He duly lost to Roger Federer, having won four previous finals against the world No 1 in 2006.
Nadal, who was beaten by Xavier Malisse in the semi-finals in Chennai last week, is confident he can perform well in Melbourne but does not expect to beat Federer. "I don't think I can challenge Roger at the moment," he said. "Roger is the best by far. He is at another level. Just look at the numbers, Roger's are so impressive it's just unbelievable." He added: "I have a big motivation because when I come back to Australia it's one of my favourite tournaments and the weather is perfect for me. Every time I come to Australia to play I play a very good game."
Nadal was not the only casualty in Sydney. Svetlana Kuznetsova, Nadia Petrova and Paradorn Srichaphan pulled out of the tournament with illness or injury, though all are expected to be fit for Melbourne. Meanwhile Amélie Mauresmo, the Australian Open champion, had to come from a set down before beating Tatiana Golovin.
Federer is already in Melbourne. He is playing in the Kooyong Classic invitation event in an eight-man field that also includes Andy Murray, Andy Roddick, Marat Safin and Ivan Ljubicic. In today's opening matches Murray was due to play Ljubicic in a rematch of their final on Saturday in the Qatar Open, which the Croat won in straight sets. Murray's performance in Doha has given him confidence as he prepares for the Australian Open. "It was obviously a good tournament and I played well," he said yesterday. "Last year I did pretty badly, so it was good to be in my first final [so early in the season]."
The Scot gave Brad Gilbert, his coach, much of the credit for his recent progress. "He's been great," Murray said. "He's definitely helped me a lot in knowing how to match my strengths up against my opponents' weaknesses. By the way my ranking has been going, you can see that he's been good, and I'm definitely not tired of him yet."