The dust has settled on the Australian Open. The players have had their week of rest and recuperation, and one by one they have all returned to the fray of the tour in their build-up to the next big event—and one of the most popular—in Dubai.
This could be one of the most interesting phases in the season. The first Grand Slam hits everyone so quickly in the tennis calendar that it often throws up unexpected performances and unexpected results.
This year in particular, there had been so many question marks over the relative merits and outcomes for the top four men.
In the event, there was surprise and normality in equal measure. Murray and Tsonga looked good until the fly-in-the-ointment of the tournament, Verdasco, took on the mantle of gladiator and beat them out of contention. He very nearly did the same to Nadal.
Roddick, showing renewed determination this year to make it back into the top ranks, performed well. His new coach and regime, combined with one of his favourite surfaces, got him to the semis.
Sadly for him, his nemesis Federer had slipped back into the assassin garb that briefly deserted him in their previous encounter.
Djokovic had been the unknown quantity before Melbourne. As it happens, he had regained some of his old form too: retiring in his quarter-final.
The big shock was reserved for the final. Nadal scored a bruising defeat over Federer in their third consecutive Slam.
And the pattern of those defeats continued after the event, with Federer disappearing off the face of the earth.
For such a high-profile personality, following such a news-worthy and emotional match, it is an astonishing feat. He just vanished, as he did after Wimbledon.
It took Nadal just a week of rest before he was back in the fray. And this raises some interesting questions. By rights, he should have been tired after Melbourne.
He was soon quoted as complaining about the hard-court schedule and the punishment it inflicted on the body. But before you know it, he was competing again, on hard-courts at Rotterdam, in both the singles and the doubles. To what purpose?
It’s clear that he can now beat the very best on hard courts. It’s obvious that he’s tuned himself into one of the fittest and strongest players in the world. He is clear of his rivals by a mile in ranking points. His knees struggle to sustain him to the very end of the season.
So why not take another week out of competition? Why does he force the body into doubles competition?
Doubles play has, of course, helped to develop his net game—and that has certainly added another string to his bow.
But if he feels this area of his game still needs to improve, he could enter only the doubles. So let’s not hear any more bleating about the punishment of the hard-court calendar.
Meanwhile, the challengers to the bipartite tennis kingdom are out there, pounding the balls, pounding their opponents, in readiness for the Dubai battle.
Tsonga continues to impress. After his tough semi in Melbourne, he went on to score a title win in Johannesburg without losing a set.
On to Rotterdam, in a tournament positively groaning with French players, and Tsonga again shone amidst his nine compatriots.
No fewer than four Frenchmen made it to the quarters, but it was Tsonga’s misfortune to meet Nadal.
It was an interesting match, this, with Tsonga really hitting his stride—and some truly exquisite shots—in the second set.
Nadal, in contrast, got cross and irritable following a farcical decision on a line call, and had to dig deep to channel his anger into better tennis. To his credit, he did just that, glaring and glowering along the way.
But it was Tsonga’s tennis that stood out for its flair and thrill. Not only was his serve devastating (until he lost momentum and energy in the final set), but his volleying brought back memories of his outstanding performance against Nadal in Melbourne last year.
His high backhand volleys are possibly the best in the men’s game at the moment. His touch, and the creativity of the angles he selects when high in air, are a joy. He is able to deliver light-as-a-feather drop-shots followed by sweet-as-a-nut lobs that defeat even the pace of Nadal.
It was a shame that his efforts in Johannesburg had drained his legs before the end of the match. Tsonga has to be one of the players to watch for the rest of the hard-court season—and on grass.
Murray made the Rotterdam final with a hugely convincing performance against Ancic. The only cloud on his horizon was an injury picked up midway through the match.
He served very strongly and played some whistling backhand drives to keep Ancic at bay, but he couldn’t have anticipated how interesting the final against Nadal would prove to be.
A word, in passing, about "Super Mario."
It is rare for any player, once they have dropped from the top ten, to work their way back. Ancic dropped a long way during his battle with glandular fever, but his early talent and his huge physical frame—if brought into play together—might just make him one of the exceptions.
He’s already back inside the top 30 and made the final in Zagreb in the first week of February. He will not impact on the top half dozen, but it would seem a just reward for the charming and hard-working Croat to break into the 10 once more.
Back to the Rotterdam final, and Nadal’s knees decided to get their own back for his lack of consideration of their well-being.
The top seed deserves praise for playing to the end of a three-setter, indeed winning some brilliant rallies, but he was unable to serve adequately, and Murray added another title and 500 points to his name.
Murray has already pulled out of next week’s schedule to look after his ankle. Whether Nadal's knee will be ready for Dubai remains to be seen.
So who else is finding some good form as we head towards the opening string of ATP 1000 events?
It was the constantly-improving Cilic who deprived Ancic in Zagreb, and he will be formidable on the fast courts over the next couple of months. Monfils, who possibly needs to finally step up and fulfil his potential this season, took one of the semi places in Rotterdam.
Though badly affected by sickness, he showed great character and much excellent shot-making against Nadal.
In San Jose, there was good news for American tennis fans as three of the four semi places went to their men.
Roddick continued his good form, knocking out the talented Gulbis and the ever-tough Haas along the way, but he then fell to Stepanek. With one title this year already, the Czeck is looking to break back into the top 20—one of the older men to do so.
Another mature top-30 player, Fish, got the better of Blake. He beat del Potro on the way and likes the hot hard courts. He could also claw his way towards the top 20.
In the southern hemisphere, there is a series of clay-court events under way—somewhat out of kilter with the build-up to the major hard-court tournaments where the big money and points are up for grabs.
A number of significant players have chosen to ply their trade in South America rather than honing their skills on the faster surfaces. Many of them, unsurprisingly, are playing in their home continent.
Gonzalez won the Chile title and Acasuso reached the semis in Brazil. One to watch—particularly when the main clay season kicks in—is the fast-improving Portugese Gil who also reached the semis in Brazil and is currently one of the fastest climbers in the ATP rankings.
Robredo is playing the clay, too, and his Brazil win will push him several places up the top 20. It’s nice to see a good all-rounder, a player of passion and energy, still making progress several years into his career.
We still have another week of jockeying for form and position in the rankings before Dubai. Many of the big names are signed up for Memphis, Marseilles and Buenos Aires.
Roddick, Tsonga, Monfils, Simon, and Ancic will make the French tournament the focus of most attention, especially as Djokovic has chosen this one for his return to the fray.
Cilic, who also has a win under his belt from Zagreb, will be hoping to continue his impressive start to the season and put some of those top players under pressure.
Nalbandian gets some match practice in his homeland. Meanwhile, the other Americans, along with Hewitt and Gonzelez, set up camp in Memphis.
And noteworthy by his absence—right up to the very start of this important proving-ground in Dubai—is Federer.
When he announced his schedule before the 2009 season, it was clear that he had decided on a change of tactics.
His proclaimed focus on the Grand Slams was born out by a paring down of his calendar. There were several minor events before Melbourne designed to build up fitness and form specific to that event. It almost worked.
But he dropped Rotterdam—indeed any match preparation—until Dubai. He spends a large part of his time training there and will, one presumes, return from his beach-side recuperation direct to what is becoming a second home. He will be acclimatized, but will he be match-ready?
There’s no doubt he will want to re-establish his position in the hard-court pecking order, though Djokovic will want to do the same. But neither opposition nor fans will have any markers on Federer until Dubai gets underway.
The tactics may be risky, or they may be world-beating. Either way, he has managed to steal the limelight even when he is nowhere to be seen!
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