Just how worried are the “big cheeses” in charge of the first Masters events of 2010? As the men’s Tour heads towards the climax of the early hard court season in North America, the window of preparation is closing fast. Yet there are worrying signs about who will actually start, let alone stay, the course.
With the news this week that Juan Martin Del Potro will be absent for between one and two months due to a recurrence of a wrist injury, it will be touch and go whether the world No. 5 is able to play in either Indian Wells—which begins in four weeks’ time—or in Miami—six weeks hence.
This comes on the heels of Rafael Nadal’s departure from the circuit in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, also for at least a month. He is still targeting Indian Wells for his return. But the uncertainty surrounding the fitness of two of the game’s biggest draws must nevertheless be causing a few sleepless nights for tournament organisers.
Del Potro has been hampered, on and off, by tendinitis in the wrist since he won the U.S. Open last September. It forced him to pull out of the second round of the Shanghai Masters, and flared up again at the warm-up tournament in Kooyong before the Australian Open.
He has now been forced to withdraw from Marseille and Dubai with the same problem, and is also unlikely to join the Argentine Davis Cup team against Sweden next month.
It was this time last year that Nadal’s injury problems started: He faded in the final at Rotterdam, and then withdrew from Dubai. This year, following his retirement in the quarterfinals at Melbourne, Nadal did not even make it as far as Rotterdam.
Information about his progress is thin on the ground. His website is under reconstruction during his absence, and his Facebook messages are noncommittal.
What little news there is comes from Uncle Toni, who has confirmed that Nadal should be back in training next week. He also confirmed that Nadal’s doctor has ruled out the need for surgery: one light on the horizon at least.
The second glimmer of light for Nadal is that the current knee injury is different from the tendinitis that blighted most of 2009.
He aims to defend his Indian Wells title next month, but it will be a big ask to come into an event like Indian Wells with no match-play under his belt.
There has also been news in recent days that Andy Murray is to continue a programme of “recovery” and “recuperation” by withdrawing from the Marseille 250 tournament next week. Bearing in mind that he had already declined to defend his Rotterdam title this year, this latest withdrawal raises a slight concern. Because looking back at Murray’s season so far, it has not been the most arduous of schedules.
In the run-up to the Australian Open, Murray said he was wary of playing too much in the early part of the season, and his schedule confirmed that. He opted not to defend his title in Doha, taking instead the less pressured route of the Hopman Cup into his Melbourne campaign.
Once the Australian Open got under way, he also enjoyed relatively plain sailing on his way to the final, losing just one set in his semi against Marin Cilic. On only three occasions did he have to play tie-breakers.
Yet the announcement of his withdrawal from Marseille talked about recovering from five weeks of play in Australia—something of an exaggeration. He did withdraw from Marseille at the last minute last year, too, but on that occasion, he had just won the Rotterdam title.
The worry, of course, is that there were hints in his semi and his final matches at Melbourne that he may have some pain in his thigh and groin. More than once, he was seen to grasp his leg with a grimace.
Last year, Murray reached the final in Indian Wells, and went on to win his third title of the year in Miami. If he is feeling the strain this year already—and it’s difficult to see how one interprets “recovery” and “recuperation” in any other way—what are the chances of his repeating those results?
So Dubai may prove to be an important indicator for Murray. A virus forced him out of the quarterfinals there last year. He will want to make greater inroads this time, but it won’t be easy.
This is the favoured event for the big names ahead of the March Masters. Although Dubai will be without two of the top five players for the second year in a row, it expects to have the top two: Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic.
Another top-20 player destined to sit out the North American Masters is Lleyton Hewitt. He had climbed to No. 19 after last year’s return from hip surgery, and is now sidelined until the clay season by his other hip.
The catalogue of woes for David Nalbandian also continues. He has still not played a tournament since his hip surgery last May because his return was thwarted by strained abdominal muscles prior to Melbourne.
He is due to play in Buenos Aires next week and, although Indian Wells is on his schedule, he isn’t yet on the starting list for that event or for the Miami Masters. In any case, starting a comeback campaign on clay can hardly be the ideal preparation.
Richard Gasquet’s Tour comeback has been hampered by a back injury sustained during his first round marathon against Mikhail Youzhny at the Australian Open.
Yet more players have suffered injuries since Melbourne: Victor Troiki, Sergiy Stakhovsky, and Florian Mayer to name a few.
But there is good news, too.
Robin Soderling, whose sluggish start to the season has been put down to a right elbow problem, has made a strong comeback in Rotterdam. Judging from the weight of his hitting this week, he is approaching the form he showed at the World Tour Finals: powerful, thinking, and confident.
He can put on a lot of points in Indian Wells and Miami, and therefore edge to an all-time high ranking by the first week in April.
Andy Roddick, too, is performing well after his extended layoff at the end of 2009. His play in San Jose should also allay any concerns about the shoulder pain that got the better of him in his arduous five-setter against Cilic in Melbourne.
Cilic himself is looking very fit and in excellent form. He has continued his winning ways since Melbourne with the title in Zagreb.
But it’s Djokovic and Nikolay Davydenko who could take the best advantage of their current fitness and good form. Both men shine in the three-set format, and both have come into 2010 boasting some excellent end-of-season wins.
Djokovic will certainly fancy his chances of winning at least one of the forthcoming Masters events, but he will not be able to improve on his No. 2 ranking.
Davydenko, though, has the chance to gain some serious ground from the rest of the hard-court swing.
He is looking fit, fast and determined, still buoyed up by his World Tour Finals title. He missed this whole phase of the Tour last year with injuries of his own. Which means that, if he continues to play well through Dubai and the North American Masters, he can put on serious ranking points.
With the question marks over the participation or the performance of the world Nos. 4 and 5 in the coming weeks, Davydenko has his best chance since the middle of 2008 of breaking into the top four before the Tour switches to clay.
It's an ill wind that blows nobody any good.