Roger Federer will be defending his title at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships while Rafael Nadal is sliding across clay in Acapulco, Mexico. Andy Murray will be sitting out until Indian Wells.
Following the Australian Open, the ATP calendar is at one of its interim periods before the heart of the clay-court season commences in April. Generally, hard-court tournaments are most promoted, and there have been several terrific tournaments and memorable matches, especially for fans of players like Novak Djokovic who will play Dubai, Indian Wells and Miami.
Meanwhile, there are tennis fans who want to watch and discuss clay-court tennis as early as possible, especially if they follow Nadal and fellow clay-court specialists. These tournaments are typically outlying events, far from the bigger banquet feed of ATP ranking points.
In essence, wading through February and March hard-court tournaments is a good showcase of stars and enticing ATP ranking points, but usually less meaningful for direct Grand Slam preparation. Players understandably pick and choose their own agenda.
All of which begins to explain why tennis fans may not see much of the Federer vs. Nadal rivalry in the future. It could also be a note of things to come for other top rivalries such as Djokovic vs. Murray.
The Hippocratic Corpus
Novak Djokovic’s epic 2011 momentum crashed following his U.S. Open title. He fought off a bad back, fatigue and breathing difficulties as he eked out his 2012 Australian title. The rest of the year was a more modest, grueling bid for more titles.
In March 2012, Rafael Nadal pulled out of the Miami semifinals because of a knee injury. His extra rest and rehabilitation seemed to be instrumental in another sensational clay-court season that included his seventh French Open title.
In April, Roger Federer did not play Monte Carlo. Later, he overcame an undisclosed hip injury to win Madrid and have semifinal showings at Rome and Roland Garros. He then issued a statement (via 10sballs.com) in mid-June that he was fit for the grass-court season. He won Wimbledon.
Meanwhile, Andy Murray’s clay-court season was plagued by a nagging back injury. He came back strong on his more preferred surfaces for a Wimbledon runner-up appearance and Olympics gold medal. He then missed time in August with a knee injury before winning the U.S. Open.
For fans and media, following tournaments and players all but calls for access to medical charts to assess the conditions and players' chances It’s even a part of retroactive analysis for many to try to explain the conditions of how a player won or lost a Grand Slam title. Predictions and previews also weigh the ramifications of health and fatigue in player performances.
Now Nadal is making his latest comeback. French Open predictions and theories already abound, mostly wondering if the Clay King will be in top form to defend his title at Roland Garros. Unfortunately, even tennis results often take a back seat to unfulfilled drama.
Expect more of this modern tennis version of injury roulette. The Fab Four are not getting any younger and their performance mileage is piling up.
Jupiter and Mars
Federer and Djokovic will be at Dubai, but Federer is not slated for Miami. Nadal may not show up on anything that doesn’t leave red stains and clouds of brick dust. Murray recently promised to work more on clay, while also admitting Wimbledon is his bigger priority (via Sky Sports, h/t espn.co.uk).
Tennis players have always picked their most ideal opportunities for money and success, so this is nothing new. It’s the business of being a champion. They must maximize their energy, health and value for winning the most dollars and ATP points possible. It’s not about creating a rivalry for added fan interest and excitement.
Federer will likely reduce his playing schedule as months turn into years. If his performance drops at the French Open and Nadal retires from hard courts each summer to rehabilitate his knees, when will they meet again? It will be at least five years this summer since their last, epic grass match.
Last August, following Federer’s easy drubbing of Djokovic in the Cincinnati finals, Djokovic said that the fast hard courts are more favorable to the Swiss Maestro (via SI.com). Would this be reason enough for Djokovic to skip this tune-up to the U.S. Open?
Players must also build their images and protect their brands. Will some stars choose to play more ATP 250 tournaments with easier fields? The winning can pile up and there would not be the physical and mental drain of facing top rivals each tournament. It could be easier to keep confidence high with occasional tests against top rivalries immediately preceding the targeted Grand Slam.
Brave New World Revisited
The ATP has recognized that homogenizing the courts is a more likely way to bring together the top stars and specialists. If Nadal knows he can win on hard courts and grass, he will be there. Furthermore, the ATP can promote more talk of calendar slams and multiple-surface champions.
Ultimately, it’s the players who decide to direct themselves to separate regions of the world. A clay-court player will prefer playing on his chosen surface. It’s also why February, March, October, November and December are largely irrelevant as Grand Slam previews, although the WTF is a nice de facto fifth Slam.
Perhaps it’s time for the ATP to shuffle things around to bring stronger fields and a greater sense of common urgency for legitimate Grand Slam preparatory tournaments.
The Australian Open could be delayed until mid-February with one Masters 1000 tournament like Miami or Indian Wells to precede it. Scrap the other one.
The clay-court season could then start in March, with a new Masters 1000 tournament in South America or Mexico. Then off to Monte Carlo and Rome before an earlier French Open start the first week of May. Give the boot to Madrid, Ion Tiriac and his mad debacles.
Next, the ATP could promote more grass tournaments from mid-May, including Halle, Queens and a new Masters 1000 grass tournament in a place like Hamburg. Wimbledon could begin in early July, thereby doubling the length and excitement of the grass-court season. Maybe this could promote a renaissance of more serve-and-volley tennis.
The U.S. Open could be held back a couple more weeks, especially to get past its insufferable heat. The indoor season could still keep Shanghai for the future of Asian tennis if Paris is dropped.
The Courts of Babylon
Whatever gets decided will depend upon TV dollars and product promotion.
It’s also possible the ATP will exert his tentacles too far, and the top players will form even more isolated personal tours regardless of the money changers and suits. Why not?
Players have always had their own motives and optimum capabilities, however self-serving. It’s the kind of maneuvering Peter Bodo once used as the thesis for his novel, The Courts of Babylon. Dust off an old copy and see for yourself. Some things about tennis really are timeless.