Shattered dreams? Murray, Djokovic among stars suffering from injuries ahead of Aussie Open

Andy Murray will miss the Aussie Open and a large chunk of the 2018 season if he elects for hip surgery. EPA/DARREN ENGLAND AUSTRALIA AND NEW ZEALAND OUT

It's nothing less than a New Year's nightmare. Instead of a replenished and reinvigorated field of eager stars chafing to challenge for the major titles, tennis is already on the verge of losing some of its biggest names before the first major of the season even begins.

Last year, injuries that prematurely ended the campaigns of Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka and Kei Nishikori played a role in the remarkable resurgence of veterans Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. The latter two finished 2017 ranked Nos. 1 and 2, respectively. Meanwhile, the four sidelined stars were expected to return with a vengeance in 2018, jump-starting a six-way battle for supremacy.

It isn't working out that way, and it quickly went from bad to worse Thursday when Murray withdrew from the Aussie Open with a chronic hip injury.

The game appears to be in the throes of a perfect storm created by a combination of factors. Murray and Djokovic, both 30, are the youngest of the five aforementioned Grand Slam champs. Proceed to the technology that has created rackets and strings that enable endless rallies -- and marathon matches. Add the punishment that joints and muscles take from the widespread reliance on heavy balls and slow hard courts.

Murray's is truly a cautionary tale for the times. He mounted a spectacular, furious drive to topple Djokovic and finish 2016 as the No. 1 player. It's impossible to prove, but that epic achievement might end up costing him the rest of his career, for he hasn't been the same since.

"[Jimmy] Connors and I hit for 15 minutes at Indian Wells last year and not one ball went out," former pro Spencer Segura recently told ESPN.com. Segura's late father, Pancho, was the renowned coach who developed Connors' game. Segura added, "You could hit the ball as hard as you wanted and not get it through the court. Only Federer plays differently."

That's a common complaint these days. As ESPN analyst Cliff Drysdale said of the slowing of the game in recent years, "No matter which way you look at it, there are going to be more injuries. The players are subjecting themselves to much more serious tensions and pressures on the body than in the past."

Djokovic, who left the tour with a bad right elbow last July (he was hoping to avoid surgery), pulled out of the Abu Dhabi exhibition last week, admitting that his elbow still hurt. Wawrinka, who had left knee surgery midway through his truncated 2017, also pulled out of that event and might not be ready for the first major of the year.

Nadal withdrew from this week's Brisbane tournament because of continuing problems with a knee. He hasn't played since the soreness caused him to withdraw from the ATP World Tour Finals last November after he played just one match. Will the top seed and defending Australian Open runner-up even be able to play in the first major of the year?

The result: The only preparation any of these men outside Murray will have for the Australian Open -- and even this isn't certain -- will be a flimsy, one-night "Tie Break Tens" exhibition in Melbourne just a week before the Australian Open starts on Jan. 15.

"Sadly I won't be playing in Melbourne this year, as I am not yet ready to compete," Murray said in a statement to the Australian Open. "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."

Murray, clearly in a melancholy mood, wrote on an Instagram post Tuesday that he's followed a rigorous, conservative program of therapy and rehabilitation to no avail. He added that surgery is also an option, but "the chances of a successful outcome are not as high as I would like."

Translation: Murray may need a miracle to be made whole again.

It's remarkable, but at the moment 36-year-old Federer is the only elite male player who isn't wearing a halo of bold-faced question marks about his fitness. The WTA seems to be in better shape, but No. 1 ranked Garbine Muguruza did fall to the court in Brisbane with cramps and lost the first match of her year. Who knows that the future will bring to a WTA eagerly awaiting Serena Williams' next move.

The situation will certainly launch the annual debate usually reserved for October, about the lack of a proper off-season in tennis. The long tennis year (11 months for the WTA, 10 for the ATP) is frequently blamed for the seemingly irreversible rise in the injury rate. The reality is that for the stars, tennis is an interval sport, with long periods of rest followed by periods of intense activity.

Tennis might not have a long off-season, but how many NFL or NBA players can take off a month -- or more -- between games?

There's also an interesting, mitigating irony in this sobering scenario. These iconic players have enjoyed outstanding longevity at the peak of the game, a tribute to their professional diligence as well as their talent. They have defied the adage, "All good things must come to an end."

Let's hope the end isn't this abrupt.