It’s an odd time in the tennis year when all the surfaces seem to clash like a salad dressing that won’t emulsify.
The clay season, which dominated the calendar from the first week in April through no fewer than 11 ATP events—three of them Masters—towards its conclusion at Roland Garros, has reared its head again.
It seems an ungainly and untimely return of the red stuff before the all-too-brief afterglow of the grass has barely faded.
Clay’s unseemly intrusion back into the tour was resisted, for one brief week, at the only remaining grass tournament in North American—and the oldest U.S. tennis championship—in Newport, R.I.
Beginning on the day after the Wimbledon final, it gave a boost to a slim-line Mardy Fish. He won only his fourth ATP title—and his first on grass—and propelled him 30 places up the rankings.
There’s a nice symmetry to the climb. Fish came close to retiring last summer but instead embarked on a training regimen to try one last time to fulfill his unrealised talent.
He lost 30 pounds in the process and now seems to have his eyes firmly set on the North American swing.
For that is where the tour now heads, even though parts of Europe cling to the clay until the very end of July—including the sadly misplaced German Open in Hamburg which was one of the casualties of the last ATP tournament reshuffle.
For a month and a half, all eyes will be focused on the synthetic courts of the USTA Olympus U.S. Open Series, where the rewards, the hype, and the charisma outstrip every other swing on the tour.
Which other country could stage-manage an entire six-week season, comprising 10 tournaments for men and women, under one banner headline, “It Must Be Love”?
And where else are the potential payouts so lucrative?
Look, for example, at the bonuses for the most successful players in the Series. The man and woman who earn the most points from the 10 tournaments have the chance to win a million dollars on top of their winnings if they also win the U.S. Open title!
Atlanta has got the proceedings underway, boosted by Andy Roddick’s entry as a wild card and top seed. But he didn’t have things easy, needing three sets in both matches ahead of a semi-final meeting with that flying Fish, who blasted his own way to the semis for the loss of just 12 games in three matches. Perhaps Roddick is having a Samson moment after so rashly shaving off his hair.
Next week, it’s Los Angeles, where No. 1 seed Novak Djokovic was due to make his U.S. Series debut. L.A.’s Farmers Classic represented an extra event in his schedule compared with 2009, but since Wimbledon, he’s already led Serbia to a semi-final place in the Davis Cup.
He has now pulled out of the event, and the tournament director will count himself lucky that Andy Murray has taken Djokovic’s place in a draw where the next ranked player is world No. 20 and defending champion Sam Querrey.
The West Coast tournament does have a classy-looking field, though, featuring Fish, Feliciano Lopez, Marcos Baghadatis and—lurking in Murray’s quarter, Ernests Gulbis.
It is also hosting a showstopper of an exhibition. Andre Agassi and John McEnroe will turn the clock back at a gala opening event in aid of Agassi’s Foundation: That will be a very hot ticket indeed.
The next stop on the tour is a leap across to Washington, D.C. Again, Roddick, Fish and Querrey are in the frame. It’s also where some of those clay-court renegades knock the grit from their shoes and prepare for the bone-jarring grip of the blue courts.
Fernando Verdasco, lately playing in the glorious seaside setting of the Swedish Open, has accepted a wild card here, and will be keen to get his hard-court hat on before being launched into the swimming pool of the Rogers Cup, which is next on the roster.
The Rogers Cup is the first Masters event of the U.S. Series and one that, uniquely, alternates between two Canadian cities.
Last year, Murray won in Montreal but he will seek to defend his title in Toronto. No matter: When the players walk onto court, they could be in any one of the six ATP venues, which are all drenched in blue and bordered in green.
After Toronto, it's back to the States to complete what is surely the toughest fortnight in the tennis calendar as the players move, in consecutive weeks, to a second Masters in Cincinnati.
Here, Roger Federer is defending the title, and therefore defending big points—1,180 for the fortnight. A poor showing could cast him even further adrift from Rafael Nadal and Djokovic in the rankings.
One more hard-court event remains, New Haven, and not surprisingly, most of the big names use this precious week to rest and recuperate before the big one gets going in New York in the last week of August.
The U.S. Open is the tournament with the most bravado, the most razzmatazz, the most noise, and the biggest arena in tennis in its vertiginous Arthur Ashe bowl.
This year, it may be missing its champion, Juan Martin Del Potro, who is still recovering from wrist surgery.
There have been announcements and counter-announcements from the Argentine camp, the most recent “Tweet” saying he hasn’t yet even picked up a racket.
Coming into Flushing Meadows, there is also a question mark over Nikolay Davydenko, whose return to the tour following his own injury has so far failed to set the tour alight.
Out early on the grass at Wimbledon and then the clay of Stuttgart and Hamburg, Davydenko is not scheduled to make any appearances during the U.S. Series except in the obligatory Masters.
The progress of Soderling, too, will be interesting. He has a strong hard-court game, but his only tournament since Wimbledon has been on the clay of Bastad in defence of his Swedish title, and he lost out to Nicolas Almagro. This has cost him valuable time in preparing for the long hard-court haul.
Federer and Nadal seem united in saving themselves for the two Masters and the U.S. Open. Both have taken extended holidays to give some niggling joints time to rest, and are only now putting their heads above the parapet to announce their return to training.
Tomas Berdych and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who make up the rest of the top rankings, are also keeping a low profile.
Which of these strategies will bear fruit—working through every tournament or saving the batteries for the big ones—only time will tell.
One thing’s for sure. Anyone who isn’t 100 percent fit and who doesn’t manage their preparation perfectly during the rigors of the coming weeks, will find the going very tough indeed.
The heat is on. The pace is relentless. The stakes are high. Who will be the last man standing?
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