Federer, Nadal, Clijsters and the rest prepare for 2011

Tennis’ elite have less of a winter respite than we are led to believe, writes Marianne Bevis

Marianne Bevis
By Marianne Bevis
rafael nadal
Rafael Nadal is set to play Roger Federer in a charity match next week (Photo: Marianne Bevis)

rafael nadal

It’s the slack patch in the tennis year—at least that’s what we are led to believe. Sure enough, a quick look at the calendar shows that the men do not begin competition until the first week in January in 2011 in Brisbane, Chennai or Doha.

And in theory, they all hung up their rackets after the Paris Masters on 14 November. So a healthy six weeks to lie back on that beach and soak up the rays.

The women do even better, it seems, finishing in mid-October for more than two months of rest and relaxation.

Yes, the ATP and WTA make great play of the holiday season afforded the men and women who tour the circuit in search of wins and, for the best and most fortunate ones, titles. And sure enough, there are reports of Roger Federer in the Seychelles, Robin Soderling in the Maldives and Novak Djokovic in Monte Carlo.

They may spend between 10 and 11 months of the year touring the world, living out of suitcases, zigzagging through dozens of time-zones, and hitting a new surface in a new city with just days to acclimatise, but now is the time to recuperate, put up the tired feet, have a few drinks.

Forget it. The top men, those who reach deepest into the big events, play the most matches and are committed to the lion’s share of media and promotional activities, played into the last week in November, expending every last ounce of energy at the World Tour Finals. Some, like Djokovic, even carried on into December for the Davis Cup.

The top women have their end-of-season tourneys, too, with the top eight playing off in the WTA Championships through the last week of October and the best of the rest heading to the albeit glamorous destination of Bali for the Tournament of Champions in early November.

Then check the ATP and WTA websites and they are awash with headlines about exhibitions, charity activities and, believe it or not, talk of training blocks and warm-up events for the new season.

Headlining the women’s side is Justine Henin playing countrywoman Kim Clijsters at home in Belgium. This is Henin’s first real test of the elbow injury that kept her off the tour for the last six months after making such a splash with her comeback at the beginning of the year. She is now training in southern China before leaping across to Perth, Australia to take part in the Hopman Cup.

If the Henin-Clijsters exho is a match made in heaven on the women’s tour, the equivalent for the men has to be Federer-Nadal, and fans have an early Christmas present when the two come face-to-face for a pair of exhibitions, one in each of their home countries. The tickets sold out in minutes, the hype has been all-pervading and the proceeds—all going to their respective charities—will be huge.

They may then take a few days off for Christmas, but their New Year celebrations will be away from home at the winner-takes-all six-man challenge event in Abu Dhabi. With $250,000 on offer to the winner, it’s a very nice way to warm up for a new season at the end of December, and with Nadal, Federer and Soderling joined by Tomas Berdych, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Marcos Baghdatis, it will be fireworks for the spectators too.

Soderling, who has announced a tie-up with the veteran Italian coach Claudio Pistolesi after a surprise parting of the ways with Magnus Norman, is already making his preparations at a training camp in Monte Carlo. Soderling has begun every season at a new-high ranking and he is looking to do so again, judging from his comments in Monaco. He is, it seems, working on his aggressive net game, on agility, coordination and court speed: precisely the right direction to take him up a level.

Andy Murray, too, is in serious training. Indeed he was at his base in Miami 10 days after the WTFs, having dropped off at the Bahamas for a celebrity invitation event to raise money for local kids.

Along with Henin, his competitive preparation for the Australian Open begins at the Hopman Cup on New Year’s Day. Many of the top players are using this unusual, but increasingly popular, event to ease themselves into match play. It pits pairs from the ATP and WTA tours in national teams: the likes of Melanie Oudin with John Isner and Murray, in a repeat of his 2010 pairing, with Laura Robson.

The standout will be the charismatic duo from Serbia: Djokovic and Ana Ivanovic—and if that doesn’t draw the crowds, nothing will. Local Aussie eyes, though, may also check out a different pair: Lleyton Hewitt—attempting another comeback in 2011 after two hip operations—with new coach Tony Roche.

There was another big star slated to grace Perth: Serena Williams. Then came the dramatic announcement of her withdrawal from the tour until the spring, including the Australian Open where she is defending champion. She has not played since winning Wimbledon in July, and has now twice had surgery on the foot she cut while on holiday after her London victory.

The Hopman Cup does not feature on the official ATP and WTA calendars but the start of January brings a plethora of point-winning events. The biggest of them is in Brisbane, which unites the men’s and women’s tours on Australian soil. It is headlined by a busy Soderling as well as defending champion Andy Roddick, who will be anxious to put a disappointing WTF—and glandular fever—behind him as he prepares for the first hard-courts of the year.

Brisbane will also give Fernando Verdasco a chance to make up ground and, more importantly, confidence after an unexpected slide in form during much of 2010. One of his major breakthroughs on the tour came in his storming performance in Melbourne in 2009, taking out Murray in five sets, Tsonga in four and finally falling to Nadal, after more than five hours of play through five sets, in the semi-finals. Can he make a big statement again?

On the women’s side, home favourite Sam Stosur, one of biggest improvers of 2010, will lead the field, followed by Nadia Petrova and Marion Bartoli. However, down in Auckland, New Zealand, three Russian women will be stealing the limelight: Maria Sharapova, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Dinara Safina.

The other two tournaments in this jam-packed week are on two entirely different continents. One of India’s few events is the men’s Chennai 250, which will feature last year’s two finalists, Marin Cilic and Stanislas Wawrinka, as well as top seed Berdych.

The Swiss No2 dropped his long-time coach in the summer to take on Peter Lundgren, and the new model Wawrinka turned in some aggressive performances during the hard-court season, especially at the US Open. It will be interesting to see if he can break into the top dozen in 2011 for the first time in two years.

But it is Doha, conveniently located just a hop, skip and a jump from Abu Dhabi, that has drawn the “names”—as it usually does. Federer and Nadal could go from one finals showdown in the desert to another. In Doha, though, they will have to contend with the man who beat both of them last year in a scintillating display that took him to the title: Nikolay Davydenko.

After this frenzy of activity across the New Year into the first week of January, some will take a few days out of competition to prepare for the Australian Open. Many more, though, will use the second week of the year to hone their game still further.

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