MELBOURNE • Former world No. 1 Andy Murray's blighted Australian sojourn came to a dramatic halt yesterday, after he withdrew from the Australian Open and headed home to ponder the grim prospect of having surgery on his injured hip.
The 30-year-old Scot flew out of Brisbane to Melbourne just before lunchtime - giving the impression he was making a last-ditch effort to get ready for the first Grand Slam of the year which starts on Jan 15 - but later boarded a flight bound for London.
An operation and the resultant recovery would keep Murray out of the game for several months, but could also save a career that has been imperilled since his painful exit from Wimbledon in July. He has not played since.
The three-time major champion said in a brief statement: "Sadly, I won't be playing in Melbourne this year as I am not yet ready to compete. I'll be flying home shortly to assess all the options, but I appreciate all the messages of support and I hope to be back playing soon.
"I'll come back when I'm ready and 100 per cent fit."
The chronic and still unspecified problem in his right hip that let Murray down in his last competitive match - a gruelling five-setter against Sam Querrey at Wimbledon - has improved through intense physiotherapy and hours of hard work away from the court.
However, he is still short of the match fitness required to be even vaguely competitive at the highest level. He has shown some of his old pace in practice and has struck the ball with power and purpose, but his strained lateral movement, especially on his forehand side, would have made him an easy target for any ambitious opponent.
His limp remains pronounced and his demeanour is downcast.
Since he made his firm statement of intent about his comeback plans nearly two months ago, Murray has hobbled unconvincingly through an eight-game public workout against Roberto Bautista Agut in Abu Dhabi last Friday and then on Tuesday to the office of Cameron Pearson, the tournament director of the Brisbane Open, to apologise for pulling out.
The five-time finalist at Melbourne Park will not be the only notable absentee at the Australian Open.
Asian No. 1 Kei Nishikori of Japan also withdrew from the year's first major tournament earlier in the day due to his wrist injury. Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Stan Wawrinka, among several others, are all still carrying injuries.
Tournament director Craig Tiley, however, said both Djokovic and world No. 1 Nadal, who is recovering from a knee injury, will be ready to play.
"I spoke to Novak. He's already got every hour of the day planned between when he arrives and the start of the Australian Open. He'll be ready," Tiley added.
"Rafa's on his way down here now so he'll be ready."
Djokovic has not played since a right elbow issue forced him to quit Wimbledon in the quarter-finals in July and has cancelled scheduled appearances at an exhibition in Abu Dhabi and the Qatar Open in Doha. He has not officially confirmed his attendance for the Australian Open despite Tiley's comments, but intends to test the injury next week at two exhibition events in Melbourne - the Kooyong Classic and Tie Break Tens, where Nadal will also feature.
On the women's side of the draw, there are also question marks over the fitness of defending champion Serena Williams, British No. 1 Johanna Konta and world No. 2 Garbine Muguruza.
THE GUARDIAN, REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE