Golden Swing for Nadal, Dubai desert for Djokovic – but Federer and Murray miss February

There is little respite even for the elite, the ones who made it to the very last weekend of the Australian Open

Marianne Bevis

The first pinnacle of the tennis season hits hard and fast after an all-too-short off-season, but now the Australian Open has done its work, crowned a new and a defending champion, and waved farewell to the tour for 2016.

Yet there is little respite even for the elite, the ones who made it to the very last weekend. For in fewer than six weeks come the biggest non-Grand-Slam events on the tour, North America’s famed double-header of Indian Wells and Miami, rich in points and prestige but demanding of every sinew.

Now 12 ATP tournaments plus the first phase of the Davis Cup will be played out on different surfaces and against contrasting backdrops, and preparation and pacing are vital. Factor in the first 500s of the year—no fewer than four in as many weeks—and February is a uniquely challenging month.

The clay road

For world No5 Rafael Nadal, who made an earlier than expected first-round exit in Australia, there is the welcome road back to his beloved clay. For February brings Latin America’s “Golden Swing”, a four-stop, sun-kissed tour through Ecuador, Argentina and Brazil. It is a swing that brought Nadal’s first title since 2014’s Roland Garros when he picked up the Buenos Aires trophy last year, and a decade ago it launched the ‘clay king’ into his most prolific title-winning year: Sao Paulo and Acapulco were the first in an 11-title 2005.

Not surprisingly, after winning at least one title in Latin America in the last three years, he again heads south to the golden reaches of Argentina and Brazil. He is in good company, too: Defending Rio champion David Ferrer, up to No6, and Fabio Fognini, who turned on the form to shock Nadal in the Rio semis last year, are also on prowl.

Nadal said from his Mallorca training base: “I asked for this wild card after the bad result in Melbourne and I hope that Buenos Aires will once again be the start of a good run for me.”

European indoor swing

The first 500 of the year in Rotterdam ushers in a brief return to the indoor hard courts of Europe. It is no surprise, then, that the draw is packed with European talent, topped this year by world No10 Richard Gasquet and three more French seeds. But unlike previous years, this prestigious event of more than 40 years’ standing is without any former champion in its line-up.

Scheduled to play here for the first time since 2013, Roger Federer was forced top pull out just days before the draw after undergoing knee surgery. The 2005 and 2012 champion is a huge draw, so this has undoubtedly been a big blow for organisers and fans alike, especially when young star Nick Kyrgios also pulled out with injury.

Another former champion, Andy Murray, is not play for the entire month as his wife awaits the birth of their first child, and defending champion and world No4 Stan Wawrinka has bypassed the tournament in favour of Marseille next week.

To add to Rotterdam’s scheduling headache, a number of its feature players have gone deep into the draw in this week’s events in Montpellier and Sofia.

Gasquet, in his first tournament of 2016 after missing Australia with injury, made it three titles from four consecutive finals in the South of France Open. Meanwhile all four of the Bulgarian Open’s semi-finalists are in Rotterdam’s main-draw, with its No6 seed Roberto Bautista Agut beating No8 seed Viktor Troicki to the title in Sofia.

Hot, hard—and outdoors

After his record run to a sixth Australian Open title, the world No1 Novak Djokovic can afford to sit back and enjoy a couple of weeks’ rest and recuperation—happy in the knowledge that he stands atop the rankings by thousands of points, and that his closest pursuers, Murray and Federer, are both out of action during February.

In particular, the absence of his biggest rival for one of the biggest 500s of the year, the Dubai Duty Free in two weeks’ time, will surely put a spring in the Serb’s step. Federer has won the title in his ‘second home’ seven times, and beat four-time champion Djokovic in the final last year—the first of three victories to the Swiss over the Serb in 2015. With Federer’s absence this year, then, it is not out of the question for Djokovic to arrive at the defence of Indian Wells and Miami with an even bigger margin between himself and the chasing pack than he already owns.

Ranked behind him in Dubai is Wawrinka, who has played and lost only two matches in the tournament before, the last time in 2008. They are joined by Tomas Berdych, twice a finalist in the Emirates.

In the same week as Dubai, and an increasingly popular alternative because of its proximity to Indian Wells, is the 500 in Acapulco, which last year switched to hard courts, and has been rewarded with some big names eager to acclimatise en route to California.

Among them is defending champion Ferrer, who has become at least as proficient and successful on hard courts as on the clay. He is attempting to defend both Rio and Acapulco back-to-back, which were two among a clutch of titles—indoors and out, hard and clay—last year.

Ferrer is joined in Mexico by big-hitting North Americans who warmed up in Delray Beach: the imposing Milos Raonic and Kevin Anderson.

Who plays where before Indian Wells?

South American clay
Quito 250: Thomaz Bellucci takes on defending champion Victor Estrella Burgos in the final
Buenos Aires 250: Rafael Nadal (defending champion), David Ferrer, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, John Isner, Dominic Thiem, Fabio Fognini, Alexandr Dolgopolov, Pablo Cuevas (plus Juan Monaco playing for the first time since wrist surgery last August)
Rio 500: Rafael Nadal, David Ferrer (defending champion), Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, John Isner, Dominic Thiem, Jack Sock, Fabio Fognini, Thomaz Bellucci
Sao Paulo 250: Fabio Fognini, Thomaz Bellucci, Pablo Cuevas (defending champion), Federico Delbonis, Albert Ramos-Vinolas, Pablo Andujar, Nicolas Almagro, Santiago Giraldo

Indoor hard
Montpellier 250: Defending champion Richard Gasquet beat Paul-Henri Mathieu
Sofia 250: Roberto Bautista Agut beat Viktor Troicki to win debut Sofia title
Rotterdam 500: Richard Gasquet, Marin Cilic, Gilles Simon, David Goffin, Gael Monfils, Roberto Bautista Agut, Benoit Paire, Viktor Troicki
Memphis 250: Kei Nishikori, Steve Johnson, Donald Young, Sam Querrey, Denis Kudla, Sam Groth, John Millman, Damir Dzumhur
Marseille 250: Stan Wawrinka, Tomas Berdych, Richard Gasquet, Marin Cilic, Gilles Simon (defending champion), David Goffin, Gael Monfils, Feliciano Lopez

Outdoor hard
Delray Beach 250: Milos Raonic, Kevin Anderson, Bernard Tomic, Ivo Karlovic (defending champion), Grigor Dimitrov, Steve Johnson, Donald Young, Sam Querrey (plus Juan Martin del Potro, returning from wrist surgery for the first time since Miami in March 2015)
Dubai 500: Novak Djokovic, Stan Wawrinka, Tomas Berdych, Roberto Bautista Agut, Feliciano Lopez, Viktor Troicki, Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, Andreas Seppi
Acapulco 500: David Ferrer (defending champion), Kei Nishikori, Milos Raonic, Marin Cilic, Kevin Anderson, Dominic Thiem, Ivo Karlovic, Grigor Dimitrov

Davis Cup First Round
w/b 4 March
Indian Wells
w/b 10 March

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