They call this the off-season.
It’s the month when those sore, tired limbs and flagging hearts take a well-earned holiday.
The sun and sand of Florida, the coral islands of the Indian Ocean, and a paradise of Caribbean hideaways beckon players and their partners before December rushes headlong into Christmas.
But downtime seems to be in short supply. As the rest of the world decks the halls, roasts the chestnuts on an open fire, and stuffs greetings cards into letter boxes, the tennis world is already winding up to the first tournaments of the ATP year in the very first week of 2010.
Whether the players launch their campaigns in the Middle East at Doha, in India at Chennai, or down under in Brisbane, all the courts will be hard and all the temperatures will be high, because all the focus is on the first Grand Slam of the year: the Australian Open.
The contenders want to hit the ground running, and that doesn’t mean turning up on New Year’s Day for a couple of days’ practice before the tournament gets underway. Indeed, it doesn’t even mean getting back into harness straight after Christmas. So intense is the competition, so demanding is the opening month, that most of them are already pounding the Plexicushion.
Back To Training
So who is first out of the blocks in the training schedules?
Top of the list has to be Rafael Nadal, who announced that he has no plans to rest at all. After the Spanish team’s emotional victory in the Davis Cup at the start of December, Nadal flew with the squad to Madrid for an official ceremony before heading home to Mallorca. After one day off, he started his pre-season training.
In an interview he said: “There will be no days to celebrate the holiday season," and went on to confirm that he aims to regain his rhythm and confidence, and get his game back to its top level.
His competitive tennis begins on Dec. 29 at the exhibition tournament in Abu Dhabi; he then opens his ATP campaign in Doha.
Roger Federer, meanwhile, announced on Facebook that he resumed training over a week ago after a short vacation (10 days, since you ask). He’s now back in his warm-weather base—Dubai—so will have an easy commute to the same two tournaments that Nadal has chosen.
Novak Djokovic went straight from the Tour End Finals in London to a charity exhibition event in Banja Luka, Bosnia and Herzegovina. That’s where the information stops. There is no news of his training schedule on his website, and no suggestion of another appearance until Kooyong just days before the Australian Open.
Andy Murray went from the Tour End Finals to an end-of-season football match with fellow Brit tennis mates. Now he's back at his training base in Miami. He took time out last week to join Andy Roddick’s annual charity weekend just up the Florida coast, but was soon back in the gym.
Next up, Murray is a surprising entrant—the only man in the top 15—to the men-and-women teams for the Hopman Cup. He’s paired up for Great Britain with Laura Robson for the week-long event in January.
There is at last some good news for Roddick fans. As recently as Dec. 1, he had to forgo playing in James Blake’s New York fundraiser for the Thomas Blake Sr. Memorial Research Fund because of the injury that kept him from the London finale.
But he has since managed some on-court time against Murray at his own Foundation’s exho event, and then took part in Elton John’s AIDS fundraiser with the likes of Tommy Haas and the Williams sisters at Baton Rouge, Louisiana. All being well, he is due to start the ATP season in the first week of January.
Juan Martin Del Potro has vacationed in Costa Rica, but is now back training in Argentina. He is involved in an annual exho, the Copa St. Thomas in Santiago, a few days before Christmas, and then disappears again until Kooyong. It’s another stream-lined schedule along the lines of Djokovic’s.
Fernando Verdasco, who played the doubles rubber in Spain’s Davis Cup victory despite thigh and abdominal strains, was advised by doctors to pull out of the Master de Tenis Bilbao-Bizkaia exhibition last weekend. An enforced two weeks of rest will cut short his preparation time for the considerable competition in Kooyong in less than a month’s time.
A few of the top men are proving to be very elusive since the end of the 2009 season. The only news about Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is that he will join the elite band playing in Abu Dhabi over the New Year.
Robin Soderling, too, is giving nothing away. Indeed his website seems to have been in a state of atrophy since 2007! He is scheduled to play in Abu Dhabi and then two consecutive ATP events before Melbourne. Along with Tsonga, therefore, he will notch up the most intensive preparation for the season.
Nikolay Davydenko, true to form, has the lowest profile of all, despite being tennis’ man of the moment. There are no news reports, and he appears to be one of the few players not to have his own website. The under-the-radar man does it again.
He is, however, to head to the Middle East before the year is out to strut his stuff in Abu Dhabi and then in Doha.
Back In Action: The Exhos
This is traditionally the time of year for exhibition and charity tournaments. Most of the men have their own charitable foundations, and many take part either in their own fund-raising or turn up for independent events organised by the likes of Billie Jean King.
But the season proper gets underway with two big-money events that the top men use to get some competitive court time without affecting their ranking points.
The first, and most glittering, event is a hop, skip and a jump from one of the opening ATP events in Doha. The Capitala World Tennis Championship is based in Abu Dhabi, an extravagant city exploding with top-flight sporting events.
Its convenient location—and the $250,000 prize money—has invariably proved to be a big attraction for the six players involved. This year is no different. The sprightly three-day jamboree, starting on Dec. 31, boasts Federer, Nadal, Tsonga, Soderling, Davydenko, and Stanislas Wawrinka. Fun and lucrative it may be, but it is also a good indicator of just where the main contenders are in their preparations.
The other popular event that traditionally attracts the top ranked players is the AAMI Kooyong Classic, which slots itself across the tail end of the opening ATP 250 tournaments and right up against the start of the Australian Open itself: Jan. 13 to 16. It also happens to be on the outskirts of Melbourne, and uses the same playing surface.
This eight-man event has, once again, attracted a stellar field, including the first 2010 appearances of Djokovic and Del Potro. Also in the field are Tsonga, Verdasco, Soderling, Haas, and Gonzalez.
That eighth spot is being kept open, at his own request, for Federer. He’s used this event five times before as his final warm-up for Melbourne—indeed he’s the current title holder—but he will not confirm his attendance until the New Year. Should he do so, he will match Tsonga and Soderling with the most intensive run-up to Melbourne.
The last of the non-ATP events before the Australian Open is the Hopman Cup in Perth. Scheduled from Jan. 2 to 9, it cuts across the Abu Dhabi event and the first ATP tournaments.
The biggest name to take part this year—apart from home favorite Lleyton Hewitt—is Murray, and his participation means he will not be able to defend his Doha title. Indeed, Murray has not announced his involvement in any ATP tournament before the Open itself. Significantly, this could have the effect of dropping him to No. 5 in the rankings, below Del Potro, before the Open’s seedings are announced.
Back in Action: The ATP Australian Open Series
Brisbane, Sydney, and Auckland launch the Australian Open Series, though many players choose ATP opening events in the Middle East. A few others start somewhere in between, on the eastern coast of India.
Some men are playing in consecutive weeks from the beginning of January right up to the start of the “Grand Slam of Asia/Pacific." Others are playing no ATP events at all before Melbourne. At the time of writing, this is how the start lists are shaping up.
Week beginning Jan. 4:
Most of the big-hitting Americans are slated to play in Brisbane—Roddick, Blake, and Sam Querrey—along with Gael Monfils, Gilles Simon, Radek Stepanek and Tomas Berdych.
Chennai has attracted Robin Soderling, Marin Cilic, and the recently-wed Wawrinka.
And Doha—well, Doha has the worst website on the ATP circuit, even worse than the Madrid and Rome Masters sites! So there is currently no information there to confirm who is playing. However, the ATP site lists who is expected to play and, as in previous years, it looks like the event for the big names: Federer, Nadal, Davydenko, and Tsonga.
Week beginning Jan. 11:
The Sydney tournament was won last year by David Nalbandian, but he has opted out this year in favor of the rival event in New Zealand. However, the Sydney crowd will see Monfils, Wawrinka, and Hewitt.
There are two other interesting names on the start list. Marcos Baghdatis is making his 2010 bid to find renewed form after a year plagued by injury. Richard Gasquet will play his first tournament since the Court of Arbitration for Sport cleared him of all drug charges in mid-December.
Current champion Del Potro announced in the autumn that he would not be defending his title in Auckland. The event does, however, have a strong Spanish contingent—Tommy Robredo, David Ferrer, Juan Carlos Ferrero, and Nicolas Almagro.
Perhaps Del Potro is hoping that his compatriot, Nalbandian—playing in his first ATP event since major hip surgery—will start his campaign with a win.
Nalbandian has taken part in a couple of exhibitions tournaments this month and, despite announcing that he is not yet 100 percent fit, beat Gaston Gaudio and Nicolas Massu in straight sets. He may only be a wild card entry in Auckland, but those Spanish players will hope they don’t encounter him in the opening round.