Djokovic crashes out of injury-ravaged Kooyong

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By Ian Ransom

MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Spain's Fernando Verdasco emerged as a strong contender for next week's Australian Open with a 6-1 6-2 demolition of world number three Novak Djokovic to book a place in the final of the Kooyong Classic on Thursday.

However, the tournament was hit by two withdrawals that could have a big impact on the first grand slam of the year when world number eight Robin Soderling and U.S. Open champion Juan Martin Del Potro both fell victim to injury.

Soderling retired hurt with an elbow problem after losing the first set 6-4 against Croatia's Ivan Ljubicic while organizers confirmed that Del Potro had pulled out of the tournament with an injured wrist, without elaborating on the extent of the damage.

The Argentine had been due to play a semi-final against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga with the Frenchman now advancing to meet Verdasco.

World number nine Verdasco, who lost an epic semi-final battle against eventual winner Rafael Nadal in Melbourne last year, needed only 52 minutes to brush aside an out-of-sorts Djokovic, who collapsed in a hail of unforced errors.

"I was feeling good today, despite the conditions," Verdasco told reporters, referring to the blustery winds swirling around the Kooyong Lawn Tennis Club.

"Of course, the result was a surprise. You never go to the court, and even less, with one guy like Novak Djokovic, and you think that you are going to win 6-1 6-2."

While Djokovic appeared at times unable to string two on-target shots together, the 26-year-old Verdasco was all control, breaking the Serbian in the first and third games to race to a 5-0 lead.

Djokovic began finding his range after losing a third break to trail 1-0 in the second set but Verdasco moved brilliantly to chase down potential winners and send back the Serbian's baseline firepower with interest.

"Today I didn't feel good on the court since I stepped in," Djokovic said. "He played well, but I made too many unforced errors and that's it."


The Serbian played down the result as "good practice" for the Australian Open, before adding that he had been practicing too hard.

"I played a lot of matches last year, almost a hundred matches so I, to be honest, I'm a bit fed up with the matches," he said.

Soderling, playing a dead rubber against Ljubicic after losing to Tsonga on Wednesday, spoke to a tournament physiotherapist after losing the first set and walked off the court.

The Swede, who was beaten by Roger Federer at the final of the French Open last year, said a tendonitis injury he had been troubled with since Wimbledon had flared up while playing.

"It was better yesterday, today I felt it a little bit more, so I figured I didn't want to take any more risks," he said.

"A lot of times, it got better in just a couple of days, so with some rest and some treatment, I really hope I will feel good next week."

Soderling said he would not play another match at Kooyong, however, and declined to talk about his chances of playing the Australian Open.

In the other dead rubber match, Chilean world number 11 Fernando Gonzalez defeated 18th-ranked German Tommy Haas 6-2 6-4.

(Editing by John O'Brien)