It’s the slack patch in the tennis year—at least that’s what the media would have you believe. Sure enough, a quick look at the calendar shows that the men do not begin competition until the first week in January.
And in theory, they all hung up their rackets after the Paris Masters on 14th November. So a healthy six weeks to lie back on that beach and soak up the rays.
The women do even better, it seems, finishing in mid-October for more than two months of rest and relaxation.
Yes, the ATP and WTA make great play of the holiday season afforded the men and women who tour the circuit in search of wins. And sure enough, there are reports of Roger Federer in the Seychelles, Robin Soderling in the Maldives and Novak Djokovic in Monte Carlo.
They may spend between 10 and 11 months of the year touring the world, living out of suitcases, zigzagging through dozens of time zones and hitting a new surface in a new city with just days to acclimatise, but now is the time to recuperate, put up the tired feet and have a few drinks.
Forget it. The top men, those who reach deepest into the big events, play the most matches and are committed to the lion’s share of media and promotional activities, played into the last week in November, expending every last ounce of energy at the World Tour Finals. Some even carried on into December for the Davis Cup: Djokovic, raise your hand.
The top women have their end-of-season tourneys, too, with the top eight playing off in the WTA Championships through the last week of October and the best of the rest heading to the albeit glamorous destination of Bali for the Tournament of Champions in early November.
Then check the ATP and WTA websites and they are awash with headlines about exhibitions, charity activities and, believe it or not, talk of training blocks and warm-up events for the new season.
But that’s no excuse for the rest of us not to have a bit of fun over the festive season.
All the fingers and feet featured in this selection of events leading up to the Australian Open were taken at 2010 tournaments—and are playing in the event described. Can you spot them?
Justine Henin and countrywoman Kim Clijsters have already played an exho for their home Belgian crowd.
It was Henin’s first real test of the elbow injury that kept her off the tour for the last six months. She is now training in southern China before leaping across to Perth, Australia to take part in the Hopman Cup.
If the Henin-Clijsters encounter was a match made in heaven on the women’s tour, the equivalent for the men has to be Federer-Nadal, and fans have an early Christmas present when the two come face-to-face for a pair of exhibitions, one in each of their home countries.
The tickets sold out in minutes, the hype has been all-pervading and the proceeds—all going to their respective charities—will be huge.
They may then take a few days off for Christmas, but their New Year celebrations will be away from home at the winner-takes-all six-man challenge event in Abu Dhabi. With a quarter of a million dollars on offer to the winner, it’s a very nice way to warm up for the new season, and with Nadal, Federer and Soderling joined by Tomas Berdych, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Marcos Baghdatis, it will be fireworks for the spectators too.
Soderling, who has announced a tie-up with the veteran Italian coach Claudio Pistolesi after a surprise parting of the ways with Magnus Norman, is already making his preparations at a training camp in Monte Carlo.
Soderling has begun every season at a new-high ranking and he is looking to do so again, judging from his comments in Monaco. He is, it seems, working on his aggressive net game, on agility, coordination and court speed: precisely the right direction to take him up a level.
Andy Murray, too, is in serious training. Indeed he was at his base in Miami 10 days after the WTFs, having dropped off at the Bahamas for a celebrity invitation event to raise money for local kids.
Along with Henin, his competitive preparation for the Australian Open begins at the Hopman Cup on New Year’s Day.
Many of the top players are using this unusual, but increasingly popular, event to ease themselves into match play. It pits pairs from the ATP and WTA tours in national teams: the likes of Melanie Oudin with John Isner and Murray, in a repeat of his 2010 pairing, with Laura Robson.
The standout will be the charismatic duo from Serbia: Djokovic and Ana Ivanovic—and if that doesn’t draw the crowds, nothing will. Local Aussie eyes, though, may also check out a different pair: Lleyton Hewitt—attempting another comeback in 2011 after two hip operations—with new coach, Tony Roche.
There was another big star slated to grace Perth: Serena Williams. Then came the dramatic announcement of her withdrawal from the tour—including the Australian Open, where she is defending champion—until the spring. She has not played since winning Wimbledon in July, and has now twice had surgery on the foot she cut while on holiday after her London victory.
The Hopman Cup does not feature on the official ATP and WTA calendars but the start of January brings a plethora of point-winning events.
The biggest of them is in Brisbane, which unites the men’s and women’s tours on Australian soil. It is headlined by a busy Soderling as well as defending champion Andy Roddick, who will be anxious to put a disappointing WTF—and glandular fever—behind him as he prepares for the first hard courts of the year.
Brisbane will also give Fernando Verdasco a chance to make up ground and, more importantly, confidence after an unexpected slide in form during much of 2010.
One of his major breakthroughs on the tour came in his storming performance in Melbourne in 2009, taking out Murray in five sets, Tsonga in four and finally falling to Nadal, after more than five hours of play through five sets, in the semi-finals. Can he make a big statement again?
On the women’s side, home favorite Sam Stosur, one of biggest improvers of 2010, will lead the field, followed by Nadia Petrova and Marion Bartoli.
However, down in Auckland, New Zealand, three imposing Russian women will be stealing the limelight: Maria Sharapova, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Dinara Safina.
[NB This photo is from 2009 photo rather than 2010.]
The other two tournaments in this jam-packed week are on two entirely different continents.
One of India’s few events is the men’s Chennai 250, which will feature last year’s two finalists, Marin Cilic and Stanislas Wawrinka, as well as top seed Berdych.
The Swiss No. 2 dropped his long-time coach in the summer to take on Peter Lundgren, and the new model Wawrinka turned in some aggressive performances during the hard-court season, especially at the U.S. Open. It will be interesting to see if he can break into the top dozen in 2011 for the first time in two years.
But it is Doha, conveniently located just a hop, skip and a jump from Abu Dhabi, that has drawn the “names”—as it usually does.
Federer and Nadal could go from one finals showdown in the desert to another. In Doha, though, they will have to contend with the man who beat both of them last year in a scintillating display that took him to the title: Nikolay Davydenko.
After this frenzy of activity across the New Year into the first week of January, some will take a few days out of competition to prepare for the Australian Open. Many more, though, will use the second week of the year to get those bodies and tactics into peak condition.
The second week of January offers up four chances for players to get their games into oil-smooth form and to acclimatise to the high temperatures of the brilliant blue outdoor hard courts of the Australian Open Series.
The biggest, and probably the most significant—because of one particular participant—will be in Sydney, where the long-absent Juan Martin Del Potro begins the long road back from a chronic wrist injury that stopped him playing in all but three events of 2010.
He will be joined in the men’s competition by defending champion Baghdatis, Richard Gasquet, Gilles Simon, Ernests Gulbis and Sam Querrey.
The women’s event is full to brimming with star-appeal. It will feature the first 2011 appearance of the new No. 1, Caroline Wozniacki—her third consecutive appearance at Sydney—together with Clijsters, Stosur and Ivanovic.
Also in the mix is a woman who may make a major breakthrough in 2011 after reaching two Grand Slam finals in 2010: Vera Zvonareva. Stir in the bundle of energy that is Francesca Schiavone—a first-time Slam winner in 2010—Jelena Jankovic, Victoria Azarenka, Yanina Wickmayer and Petrova and this is one melting pot of an event.
Sydney’s outstanding line-up leaves few names for the last women’s event before Melbourne in Hobart. With the likes of Bartoli and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova presenting the biggest challenge, Hobart should give Safina another chance to make some headway before facing the rigors of a her Grand Slam since returning from long-term injury.
Back in Auckland, the men take over from the women for what is the biggest men’s professional sporting event in New Zealand.
It has attracted the only other big name from the WTFs not to feature thus far, David Ferrer. Last year at this tournament, Ferrer went out in the first round, and then fell in the second at the Australian Open. He began to talk of retirement, but then went on to reach his highest ranking in two years after good runs not only on the clay but also on the late indoor hard courts.
Ferrer made little impact on the top men at the WTFs but still has the potential to push everyone else to the limits, and will want to make a better mark in the Oz swing than he did in 2010.
His biggest challenge in Auckland should come from fellow Spaniard Nicolas Almagro, now riding high at 15 in the world. However, this event will also give tennis fans their first chance to see whether David Nalbandian can continue his outstanding form after hip surgery in 2010.
The Argentine attempted to make his tennis comeback in Auckland last year, but injured himself in warm up and also had to withdraw from Melbourne. He is in better shape now and, turning 29 on the first day of the year, he will be conscious that he has little time left to make his way back to the top of the game.
There is one other non-ranking tournament that has been highly popular with many of the top players over the years: the eight-man showcase that runs for four days in the Melbourne suburb of Kooyong.
Hewitt’s presence there for the first time will be a popular addition for the home crowd, but he will be up against a class field that includes Berdych, Davydenko, Verdasco, Tsonga, Jurgen Melzer, Mikhail Youzhny and Gael Monfils.
The results may not yield ranking points, but they will give the winner a real boost of confidence ahead of the main show.
The strap line for 2011’s Australian Open Series is “A Whole New Level” and, compared with the preparations that have led to this moment, that’s exactly what the players will need to find when they arrive in Melbourne for the first Major of the year.
For the Open itself boasts the world's top 100 ranked men and all but two of the world’s top 100 women—one of the missing figures being defending champion Williams.
There will be several fascinating storylines to follow. For the men, there is Nadal’s pursuit of a fourth consecutive Slam. Should he succeed, he would be the first in 41 years to emulate Rod Laver. How appropriate that his attempt will be made in the arena that bears that great Australian’s name.
However, Federer is the Australian defending champion and is aiming for his fifth title there. He also injected a little extra spice into his rivalry with Nadal by beating him at the WTFs. He played great tennis in Melbourne last year and, during the late hard-court season, he put on an aggressive surge of form.
Djokovic also showed some impressive improvement during 2010. He won his only Slam in Melbourne almost three years ago and he looks keen and capable enough to take his second this year.
Murray came close to winning his first Slam this time last year, and since losing to Federer in the final, he has beaten the Swiss in two Masters finals. He and the constantly improving Soderling will be strong contenders.
And then there is Del Potro. He clearly has the ability, but surely he will not be sharp enough to disturb the top five quite yet.
As for the women, Melbourne will provide Wozniacki with her first chance to prove she is the rightful No. 1. She became more impressive as she advanced through 2010, especially on the end-of-season hard courts, and must be one of the favorites for the title. But Clijsters got the better of her at the Tour Championships in Doha and will, as always, be a formidable threat.
The unknown quantity comes in the petite shape of Henin. If she is fit—and the key may be whether her lately-healed elbow can deliver a consistently solid serve throughout the tournament—she will always be a danger.
One more to watch is Zvonareva. It took Serena Williams, Clijsters or Wozniacki to beat her in the second half of 2010, and she has become a more aggressive and consistent player than at any time in her 10 years as a pro. She could be the dark horse on the hard courts of Melbourne.
So January 2011 promises to be a sun-drenched, no-holds-barred, high-spirited affair. Will it be the old campaigners who dominate or the young bloods ready to take on the mantle of champion?
With so much at stake, no wonder all those men and women have been hard at it since their 2010 season’s came to an end.
This is no sport for holidays!
Warning: the identities of the photos are on the final slide: stop now if you don’t want to know the solution just yet!
Top: Federer, Rome
1 Soderling, WTF, London
2 Murray, Wimbledon
3 Roddick, Queens
4 Sharapova, Wimbledon 2009
5 Cilic, Queens
6 Nadal, Wimbledon
7 Gasquet, Queens
8 Azarenka, Wimbledon
9 Ferrer, Rome
10 Verdasco, Rome
11 Federer, Rome
12 Djokovic, Rome
13 Venus Williams, Wimbledon
14 Serena Williams, Wimbledon