Time running out for Safin


Tennis: Marat Safin is increasingly unlikely to defend his Australian Open title because of a knee injury, tournament director Paul McNamee said yesterday.

Safin has not played since August and is facing a race against time to be ready for the Australian Open, which starts at Melbourne Park on January 16th.

The Russian announced his withdrawal from the Hopman Cup, one of the lead-up events for the open, in a statement.

"Not playing this tournament, which was an important part of his preparation for Melbourne, certainly puts him behind the eight ball," McNamee conceded. "There is certainly a big question mark over his participation in the open."

Safin won his first Australian Open earlier this year, beating Roger Federer in the semi-finals before coming from a set down to defeat Lleyton Hewitt in the final.

He has been plagued by knee trouble since Wimbledon and has not played since the Cincinnati Masters Series in August.

McNamee said he is waiting on news of Spain's French Open champion Rafael Nadal after the world number two withdrew from the Indian Open in Chennai. Nadal pulled out of next week's season-opening event because of a foot injury.

"There is no more information other than he's pulled out of Chennai," McNamee said. "Fingers crossed there. He's the number two for Melbourne and a pretty big guy there."

Australian Open organisers are also hoping Maria Sharapova and four-times champion Andre Agassi will recover for the event.

Sharapova withdrew from the Australian women's hardcourt championships because of a shoulder problem while Agassi is battling a long-term ankle injury.

Players have been asking for the first grand slam of the year, which is traditionally held in the last two weeks of January, to be moved back to March when the weather is cooler and also to give them a longer break.

It is not unusual for top players to miss the Australian Open through injury and this year's confirmed casualties include defending ladies champion Justine Henin-Hardenne, beaten finalist Kim Clijsters and Jennifer Capriati, the 2001 and 2002 winner.