The first month of the tennis season is also one of the most challenging, with the run-in to the first Grand Slam like a sprint up the side of a mountain.
No sooner are Christmas and New Year out of the way than the rigors of the Australian summer—hot, humid and, this year, drenched by appalling tropical storms—summon tennis’s protagonists “down under.”
Already, three ATP tournaments and a handful of exhibition events have come and gone. They have given the players a chance to practise the new shots, new tactics and new ambitions they have worked on during the all-too-brief offseason. They have also provided a chance to throw down the gauntlet ahead of the big Melbourne prize.
Amongst the exhibitions, the Hopman Cup offered one of the more interesting pointers to form, featuring as it did two of the top five men in the world.
Andy Murray, newly ranked at No. 5 in the world, chose the Perth-based event for his preparations, and defeated John Isner, Nicolas Mahut and Polito Starace all in straight sets.
He did not, though, get the chance to compete against the top dog in the tournament, No. 3 Novak Djokovic. With neither Serbia nor Great Britain reaching the playoffs, there was no head-to-head confrontation between two potential challengers for the Australian title.
However Murray and Djokovic have been practising together on a regular basis out of competition. Murray pointed out that this was not unusual for the two friends ahead of a Slam event. “Hopefully, we can help each other ahead of the tournament.”
Djokovic, who also won all three of his matches in the Hopman Cup, clearly remained buoyed by the confidence he gained from an excellent end-of-year run that included an outstanding performance for Serbia in the Davis Cup final. In Perth, he claimed “The last couple of months I’ve been playing maybe my best tennis…everything seems to be working.”
Murray plays one more competitive match—albeit an exhibition—at the Kooyong Classic on Thursday, while Djokovic is sticking to the Melbourne Park courts. But what of the other top contenders?
In flood-stricken Brisbane, a very strong field was headed by two top-10 stalwarts. Andy Roddick, on a new fitness regime, has affirmed his intention of using his top-eight ranking for a final assault on a Slam title.
Roddick won the Brisbane title last year against Radek Stepanek, but this year faced the formidable frame of Robin Soderling. He both lost the match and his chance to become only the third active player after Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal to reach a 30th career title.
Roddick will be anxious to put a disappointing WTF—and glandular fever—behind him, and he still has time in 2011 to match Federer in winning a title for 11 consecutive years. He also found time in Brisbane to open his pockets and raise awareness for flood victims across Queensland.
Soderling, buoyed up by his first Masters title in Paris, has also been hard at work in the off-season, concentrating on improving his aggressive net game. And before taking the Brisbane title, he had already played in a knockout event in Abu Dhabi, beating Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in three sets before losing to Federer by the same margin.
The Swede’s hard work and determination over the last two years have produced a steady improvement in his rankings, and the win over Roddick without facing a break point took him to No. 4 in the rankings. Soderling is a man on a mission, and he could cause a few more upsets before the Australian Open series is done.
A man new to the top 10, world No. 6 Tomas Berdych, was the top seed in the Chennai 250 in India but fell in the semis to the eventual winner, Stanislas Wawrinka. The big Czech also lost in the Abu Dhabi knockout to Nadal in straight sets. He will play once more in the Kooyong knockout exho later this week, but has yet to prove he has the consistency and variety to stay with the top half dozen.
And so to the crème-de-la-crème who were holed up in the glamorous surroundings of the Qatari capital of Doha.
It is a location that oozes wealth: no surprise, then, that the prize money topped a million dollars, more than the combined offerings of Chennai and Brisbane. No surprise, either, that the dry, comfortable heat of the Gulf drew a class field: Federer and Nadal ably supported by Tsonga and Nikolay Davydenko.
Many expected a fifth meeting in as many weeks between the top two seeds. Federer and Nadal had met at the end of November in the World Tour Finals, in two charity exhibitions and in the final of Abu Dhabi over New Year. But a Doha match-up was not to be.
Nadal’s progress was severely hampered by the flu—he lost an uncharacteristic 6-0 set before beating Lukas Lacko in the second round. Then, in a repeat of last year’s final, he was put to the sword by Davydenko, 6-2, 6-3.
Nadal went on to defend his doubles title, but opted to stay in Doha to recover for a few days rather than fly immediately to Melbourne. He will do so, though, in the knowledge that he beat Federer in two tie-breaks to take that quarter-of-a-million-dollar Abu Dhabi prize.
Federer also looked and sounded full of cold, and initially he looked a little rusty. But his racket was soon burnished by wins over the young Dutch talent of Thomas Schoorel, close friend Marco Chiudinelli and the Davis Cup-winning Viktor Troicki.
Next it was Tsonga on the receiving end of an increasingly confident Federer, before Davydenko faced the Swiss for the 17th time in their careers. The Russian beat Federer in the Doha semis last year and so was bidding to become the only man to beat both Federer and Nadal three times in a single tournament: as well as Doha last year, he had pulled off the feat at the 2009 WTFs.
Neither Federer nor Davydenko had dropped a set prior to the final, but Federer had not so much as faced a deuce on his serve in his previous two matches. Unfortunately for Davydenko, the Swiss maintained that record through the entire final, too.
Davydenko thrives in the dry, fast conditions that suit his flat, crisp ground strokes and early striking of the ball. In Federer, though, he faced a player even more adept at penetrating drives and acute put-aways.
Their combined talents produced a scintillating display of tennis played at high pace and with high focus. Almost every ball was taken on the rise and returned to the lines, and both men moved like lightening around their territory. But the result never really looked in doubt.
Few men manage to combine the appearance of leisurely calm with hungry intent quite as well as Federer, and the Swiss was clearly hungry. From the moment he broke Davydenko’s first service game to the conclusion of the match, 6-3, 6-4, with a love service game, it was an impressive and chilling display.
But who else may spring a surprise in Melbourne?
Three classy players have opened their 2011 accounts this week. In Sydney, Juan Martin Del Potro began the long road back from a chronic wrist injury that stopped him playing in all but three events in 2010. He beat the dangerous Feliciano Lopez in a demanding three tie-breakers so it looks as though he is in reasonable shape. But his straight sets loss in the second round suggests he is not yet sharp enough to disturb the top five.
In Auckland, the No. 7 ranked David Ferrer got into action. After falling in the second round at the Australian Open last year he contemplated retirement, but then went on to reach his highest ranking in two years.
Ferrer made little impact on the top men at the WTFs but always has the potential to push everyone else to the limits. He will want to make a bigger impression in this Oz swing than he did in 2010, but he was made to work hard in his opener in New Zealand.
Auckland also hosts David Nalbandian, who returned to the tour spasmodically in 2010 though with considerable impact.
The Argentine attempted his comeback from surgery at Auckland last year but injured himself ahead of Melbourne. He is in better shape now and, having turned 29 on the first day of the year, he must be conscious that he has little time left to make his way back to the top of the game. He raced into the quarterfinals with a straight sets win lasting barely an hour.
There is also the fascinating win in Chennai by Wawrinka to consider. The Swiss has recently restated a once-and-for-all assault on the tennis rankings following a first round exit at last year’s Wimbledon. He dropped his life-long coach, reached his first Grand Slam quarterfinal at the U.S. Open and has now won only his third ATP title—his first on hard courts.
With the scalps of Murray in New York and Berdych in Chennai, it may be that the powerful Wawrinka has found his natural home on the pacy hard courts rather than on his traditional clay stomping ground.
High ranked players who have failed to shine during these crucial weeks include Fernando Verdasco, who went out in the first round in Brisbane, and Marin Cilic who, having won the Chennai title for the past two years, fell at the first hurdle this time round.
The Spaniard has another chance to work on his confidence in Kooyong this week while Cilic will play an exho there against Murray.
Tsonga, too, has looked less than convincing in his first matches back on the tour after extended periods of injury. He beat Guillermo Garcia-Lopez in two tie-breakers in the Doha quarters but he lacked his usual spontaneity and attack and rarely troubled Federer in the semi. Tsonga, too, is using Kooyong for further practice but surely needs a little more time to reclaim his best form.
Federer, though, with his 67th title in the bag, was on his way to Australia before the sun had set on his Doha win. He has the look of a man determined to lay down a marker for 2011’s No. 1 crown. Whether or not that comes to pass, the odds must be shortening by the day for a repeat of last year’s victory “down under.”
In his way will be Nadal aiming to be the first man in 41 years to emulate Rod Laver’s four consecutive Slams.
Djokovic, who won his only Slam in Melbourne three years ago, also looks keen and well capable of taking his second Slam this year.
Murray came close to winning his first Slam this time last year and, since losing to Federer in Australia, has beaten the Swiss in two Masters finals. He and the constantly improving Soderling will be dangerous opponents.
The strap line for 2011’s Australian Open Series is “A Whole New Level,” and that is exactly what all the players—even the five prime contenders—will now have to find.