Barely have the muscles recovered from the black run of the hard-court sweep that starts at the Shanghai Masters on one side of the globe and ends with the Paris Masters and the World Tour finals on the other—a gruelling post-US Open stretch of up to 11 tournaments—than the hard-courts beckon them into a new year.
The players need to be fresh and rested—with new training regimes, diets and rackets mastered—right from the off. Immediately, the Australian Open confronts them like a mountain without altitude training: There is no gradual build-up via 250s, 500s and Masters as there are for the other Grand Slams.
February, then, should be a time to recuperate, but before the champion’s name is engraved on the Norman Brooks trophy, three tournaments are already under way, heralding a dozen more that build up to the first Masters events of the year. Not content with just one, however, March peaks with two of the biggest Masters back-to-back. Indian Wells and Miami offer the most prize money—$5m and $4m respectively— and the biggest draws—96 players apiece—outside the Grand Slams.
So ensuring that each player’s performance crescendos steadily towards the end of March—the watershed between hard courts and the following two months on clay—is no easy task.
Some throw caution to the wind and head for the clay of South America—a Golden Swing of five sun-soaked venues proffered like an apple in the Garden of Eden. Most often, these draw the Latin American and Spanish players to their natural environment: Fernando Verdasco, David Ferrer, Nicolas Almagro, David Nalbandian and Gilles Simon are all heading down Mexico way to the scent of bougainvillea and the aroma of wild herbs.
More, though, ply their trade on the indoor hard courts of Europe before transitioning to the sun-soaked hard courts of Dubai and Delray Beach, staying faithful to a surface that will prepare them for that prestigious North American double header.
Along the way, there are three 500 events—four with Acapulco’s clay—in three consecutive weeks. The first of them—the first 500 of the year—is in Rotterdam.
This year, however, the revamped courts in the Ahoy arena have been forced to make a slower start than usual because of a new 2012 calendar. The first round of the Davis Cup was moved to the weekend that Rotterdam gets under way, having previously come just before Indian Wells.
But while the move has been successful in attracting big names to the Davis Cup, it has proved problematic for Rotterdam. No fewer than 18 out of the 32 players in the main draw have been playing their first-round ties all over the world this weekend, and are therefore unable to play on Monday.
This must be particularly frustrating for tournament director and 1995 champion, Richard Krajicek. The Dutchman scored the considerable coup of attracting world No3 Roger Federer to the Netherlands the first time since he won the title in 2005, but Federer is amongst those who have been delayed. Also affected are second seed Tomas Berdych and No7 seed, Viktor Troicki.
Berdych, who is making his seventh appearance in Rotterdam, nevertheless comes to the tournament in good form. After a quarter-final finish at the Australian Open, he took his seventh career title at the indoor Montpellier 250 last week, beating Gaël Monfils in the final.
Mikhail Youzhny, winner of the Rotterdam title in 2007, took both the singles and doubles titles at the other indoor tournament, Zagreb, last week. His doubles partner, Marcos Baghdatis, is also in the Dutch draw.
One boost for Krajicek comes in the shape of Juan Martin del Potro, who last year favoured the North American tournaments for his Indian Wells build-up. He is making his debut in Rotterdam and declined to play for Argentina in the Davis Cup in order to avoid a temporary switch to clay.
The draw boasts another debutant capable of adding some real sparkle to the icy, grey conditions that currently hem in Europe’s largest port. World No18 Alexandr Dolgopolov is drawn to reach a quarter-final place against Federer, an opportunity he—and the Rotterdam crowds—would relish.
Next in line come the equally attractive prospects of either Feliciano Lopez or Richard Gasquet, both of whom, like Federer, have single-handed backhands. The former took Federer to a three-hour, three tie-break stunner in Madrid last spring and the latter went one step better a week later by beating Federer in a beauty of a match in Rome.
If the Swiss survives all of them, it is even possible there could be a repeat of the 2005 final. Federer’s losing opponent on that occasion was Ivan Ljubicic—and he and his single-hander sit in the bottom half of this year’s draw.
In an interview for Dutch television, Federer talked of fans now coming to watch him while they have the chance because of the aura he has acquired.
“It’s almost awkward for me really, but that’s kind of the sense that I get, what I hear a lot, and I guess that’s what you get for being around 13 years and doing so much in the game.”
And he went on to make particular mention of that signature shot, his single-handed backhand:
“Maybe also it’s the way I play the game. I’m the only one-hander in the top four or five, maybe the top 10, and that’s very liked, because it’s perceived perhaps as the olden times, the way Sampras and Laver and McEnroe, these guys used to play.”
What are the chances, then, that as well as Lopez, Gasquet and Ljubicic further into the week, Federer could face another single-hander in his second match? Youzhny has one of the smoothest actions of the lot.
So even without reigning champion Robin Soderling, still suffering the ill effects of glandular fever, or Rafael Nadal, missing the entire hard-court swing ahead of Indian Wells for the third straight year, or world No1 Novak Djokovic, taking time out until the next 500 in Dubai, Rotterdam promises some tennis that will melt the most chill of Februarys.
Schedule update: To boost a first day Centre Court schedule affected by Davis Cup delays, Krajicek is to open the Federer and Del Potro practice session between the afternoon and evening matches: approx time 5pm. Federer will play his first match on Wednesday night at 7.30 pm.
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