The race for tennis supremacy in 2009 is under starter’s orders…
The anticipation is palpable. The first top flight tennis of 2009 begins on the first day of the year at the brand-new Capitala World Tennis Championship in Abu Dhabi and it will throw up some tantalising clashes that will shed some early light on the prospects for the world’s best players.
There is big money at stake - an all-or-nothing prize of $0.25 million, though the winnings will probably be given to the victor’s favoured charity. However, it will be the stature of those on court that the world will be measuring at this starry tour opener.
Six of the top ten men are competing in a new venue in an intriguing elimination format. New Year’s Day will see Roddick take on Davydenko, followed by Murray against Blake.
The fun really begins on the 2nd with Federer playing the Murray/Blake winner and Nadal playing the victor of the other first-day clash. The two winners then compete on 3 January in the final.
These encounters throw up so many questions, so many possibilities. Is Federer back to fitness? How will he face his Master’s Cup nemesis, Andy Murray, if Blake is dispatched? How are Nadal’s knees? Will he impose himself on the rest of the field from the very start of the season (something he’s so far failed to do in his illustrious climb to the top)? And is Murray ready to fulfil the promise and the ambition that has galvanised the sporting media since the 2008 season concluded?
Then there’s the added spice of Djokovic’s decision to give this one a miss. And that he’s opted to play his first Australian Open warm-up at Brisbane rather than the more prestigious Doha where Roger and Rafa are headed for 5 January. He could be hiding his light under a bushel. He could be nervous about defending his Grand Slam title against a fit Federer. He might just be keeping a low profile on the way to becoming the world number 2. Whatever is behind his decision, the mix of personalities, ambitions, and questions gathered in Abu Dhabi make that one of the New Year’s Eve parties to die for!
Looking beyond Doha, the top players are spreading their favours across a variety of locations in the week before Melbourne. Roger always opts for Kooyong – a small 8-man event at the former home of the Australian Open. Is that why he chooses the low-profile venue? He’s a man who revels in the game’s history and his future place in it.
Some of the players opt for Sydney or Auckland for their Aussie warm-up, some choose not to play at all during the days before Grand Slam One. But Kooyong – a hop, skip and a jump down the coast from Melbourne – could be the most revealing of January’s offerings. It was where Federer lost his rhythm in 2008, struck down with a stomach virus that forced him to withdraw, and put a spanner in the works of his Slam preparations. He never quite made up the ground he lost there, looking tired, flat and drained by the time he reached the Australian semis. That he was subsequently diagnosed with glandular fever was a shock (how had he progressed so far into the tournament?) but not a surprise – he simply hadn’t looked himself.
So it’s a little like the start of the Grand National – all the riders jockeying for position, sizing up the opposition, metaphorically flexing their muscles, wanting to prove their worth, keen to impress. Will they be brought down by an unfancied outsider who falls at the next fence? Will the going be too heavy for the fleet-footed, or the ground too fast for the heavier, muscular horses?
There is one other interesting facet to this run-up to 2009, and it refers back to the last Federer/Murray encounters. Shanghai saw Andy triumph against an awesome but injured Roger in one of the matches of the year. Their previous confrontation had Roger pummel Andy at Flushing Meadow. So their next match will be riveting.
Notice, then, the contrasting ways in which they have used the media this last week to launch their 2009 campaigns. Andy’s team has announced, amid talk of multi-million pound deals for the hotly-tipped favourite for the year, that he has struck a deal with a new PR company – the same as that used not only by Djokovic but also by David Beckham, Cristiano Ronaldo and Tom Cruise. The media have found a new tennis star to pump up with talk of Grand Slam victories and mega-bucks sponsorship.
But the media can be fickle, and so we turn to Federer’s turn-of-the-year profile. All the news in the press and on-line has come from his Christmas letter on his own website – a letter to his fans. He has talkd first (and this goes some way to explaining why he is so universally loved as a sportsman) to those who have stood by him through the highs and lows of 2008. He writes, person-to-person, about the difficulties he has faced and the joys he has shared. And he talks of his love of tennis and the drive to work harder than ever during these first weeks of the year.
He began to use this technique in the autumn when he announced his withdrawal from Stockholm via his website, and subsequently refused to be drawn by the media on when he would next play. His announcement about playing Davis Cup was also revealed first to his fans.
By doing this, it is as though he is saying to the media: “This is how I feel, this is what I think – now try to misrepresent me.” Of course they can’t.
But what permeates this latest letter is the enormous gratitude to and affection for his fans. There is genuine warmth in the ‘call to arms’ with which he closes – a part of the letter that the media chose not to quote: “I would like to thank you with all my heart. Let's keep up the great work and head into a successful 2009 together.”
This is going to be a fascinating few weeks. I for one hope above hope that Roger will bring the passion and aggression from those recent confrontations with Murray into 2009. If he does – with returned fitness – it will lift the hearts of every lover of tennis. And one in the eye for all those journos who “changed horses” in 2008.
I know where my money and affection lie.