Tennis tour runs headlong towards the US hard courts
It is an odd time in the tennis year when all the surfaces seem to clash like a salad dressing that won’t emulsify.
The clay season, which dominated the calendar from the first week in April through no fewer than 11 ATP events towards its conclusion at Roland Garros, has suddenly reared its head again.
It is an ungainly and untimely return of the red stuff before the all-too-brief afterglow of those precious grass weeks has barely faded.
Clay’s unseemly intrusion was resisted for one brief week at the only remaining grass tournament in North America -the oldest US tennis championship -in Newport, Rhode Island.
Beginning the day after the Wimbledon final, it gave a boost to a slim-line Mardy Fish. He won only his fourth ATP title -his first on grass, and propelled him 30 places up the rankings.
There is a nice symmetry to the climb. Fish came close to retiring last summer but instead embarked on a training regime to try one last time to fulfil his unrealised talent. He lost 30 pounds in the process, and now seems to have his eyes firmly set on the North American swing.
For that is where the tour now heads. While parts of Europe cling to the clay until the very end of July -indeed there is a 500 event in Hamburg next week -serious preparations for the next Masters of the year begin in earnest in America.
Over the next six weeks, all eyes will focus on the synthetic courts of the USTA’s Olympus US Open Series, where the rewards, the hype and the charisma outstrip every other swing on the tour.
Which other country could stage-manage an entire six-week season, comprising of ten tournaments, under one banner headline: ‘It Must Be Love’?
And where else are the potential payouts so lucrative? Look, for example, at the bonus payouts to the most successful players in the series. The man and woman who earn the most points from the 10 tournaments have the chance to win a million dollars on top of their winnings if they also win the US Open title.
Atlanta Georgia gets the proceedings underway, and it has drawn Andy Roddick as a wild card and top seed. The next week, it is Los Angeles, where No1 seed Novak Djokovic makes his debut. Since Wimbledon, he has already led Serbia to a semi-final place in the Davis Cup, and Los Angeles represents an extra event in this schedule compared with 2009.
This west-coast tournament is a classy affair, attracting defending champion Sam Querrey, Ernests Gulbis, Feliciano Lopez, Marcos Baghadatis and Fish.
It is also hosting a show-stopper of an exhibition. Andre Agassi and John McEnroe will turn back the clock at a gala opening event in aid of Agassi’s Foundation. And with prices starting at under £50 a throw, it will be a very hot ticket indeed.
The next stop on the tour is a leap across to Washington DC. Again, Roddick, Fish and Querrey are in the frame. It is also where some of those clay-court renegades knock the grit from their shoes and prepare for the bone-jarring grip of the blue courts.
Robin Soderling and Fernando Verdasco, lately playing in the glorious sea-side setting of the Swedish Open, will be keen to get their hard-court hats on before being launched into the swimming-pool of the Rogers Cup. This is the first Masters of the US Series and one that, uniquely, alternates between two Canadian cities.
Last year, Andy Murray won in Montreal, but he will seek to defend his title in Toronto. No matter: When the players walk onto court, they could be in any one of the six ATP venues, which are all drenched in blue, with just the court surround relieved in light green.
After Toronto, it is back to the States for what is surely the toughest fortnight in the tennis calendar as the players move, in consecutive weeks, to a second Masters in Cincinnati. Here, Roger Federer is defending the title, and therefore defending big points -1,180 for the fortnight. A poor showing could cast him even further adrift from Rafael Nadal and Djokovic in the rankings.
One more hard court event remains, New Haven, and not surprisingly most of the big names use this precious week to rest and recuperate before the big one gets going in New York in the last week of August.
The US Open is the tournament with the most bravado, the most razzmatazz, the most noise, and the biggest arena in tennis in its vertiginous Arthur Ashe bowl.
This year, it will be missing its champion, Juan MartÃƒÂn del Potro, who is still absent with injury. Coming into Flushing Meadows, there is also a question mark over Nikolay Davydenko, whose return to the tour following his own injury has been weak. Out early on the grass at Wimbledon and then the clay of Stuttgart, he is making few appearances during the US Series.
The progress of Verdasco and Soderling, too, will be interesting. Both have strong hard-court games, but both have somewhat surprisingly spent time on clay rather than taking time out to prepare for the long hard-court haul.
Murray, Federer and Nadal, in contrast, seem set on saving themselves for the two Masters and the US Open, and Marin Cilic and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga are keeping a low profile too.
Which of these strategies will bear fruit, only time will tell. One thing is for sure. Anyone who is not 100 percent fit, and who does not manage their preparation perfectly during the rigours of the coming weeks, will find the going very tough indeed.