Federer’s 3rd Doha title signals his intent for Australian Open
World No2's Doha triumph sets him up well for defence of Melbourne title, writes Marianne Bevis
The first month of the tennis season is always a challenging one. The run-in to the first grand slam is like a sprint up the side of a mountain.
No sooner are Christmas and New Year out of the way than the rigours of the Australian summer -hot, humid and, this year, drenched by appalling tropical storms -summon tennis’s protagonists Down Under.
Already, three ATP tournaments and a handful of exhibition events have been and gone. These have given the players a chance to practise the new shots, new tactics and new ambitions they have developed over the all-too-brief off-season. They have also provided a chance to throw down the gauntlet ahead of the big Melbourne prize.
Of the exhibitions, the Hopman Cup has offered the most interesting pointers to form, featuring as it did two of the top five men in the world in their only pre-Australian competition.
Andy Murray, as last year, chose the Perth-based event for his preparations, and defeated John Isner, Nicolas Mahut and Polito Starace all in straight sets. But he did not get the chance to play the top dog in the tournament, world No3 Novak Djokovic, who also won all his Perth matches.
With neither Serbia nor GB reaching the playoffs, there was no head-to-head confrontation between two potential challengers for the Australian title. Murray was a finalist last year and Djokovic won his only Slam thus far in Melbourne in 2008.
So what about the other top contenders? World No6 Tomas Berdych was the top seed in the Chennai 250 in India but fell to the eventual winner, Stanislas Wawrinka. This was a fascinating result, partly because the Swiss was runner-up last year to Marin Cilic -who fell in the first round -but also because he has recently announced a once-and-for-all assault on his tennis career.
Wawrinka’s first step, following a first round exit at Wimbledon, was to drop his life-long coach and join forces with Peter Lundgren. He subsequently reached his first grand slam quarter-final at the US Open and has now won only his third ATP title -his first on hard courts. With the scalps of Murray in New York and Berdych in Chennai, it may be that the powerful Wawrinka has found a natural home on the pacy hard courts rather than on his traditional clay stomping ground.
In Brisbane, a very strong field was headed by two top-ten stalwarts. Andy Roddick, on a new fitness regime, has indicated his intention to use his top-eight ranking for a final assault on a slam title. He won the Brisbane title last year against Radek Stepanek. This year, however, he faced the formidable frame of Robin Soderling, still buoyed up by his end-of-season triumph in his first Masters in Paris.
He, too, started his off-season training very early, concentrating on improving his aggressive net game. The Swede’s hard-work and determination over the last two years has produced a constant rise in the rankings, and his win over Roddick, without facing a break point, takes him above Murray to No4 in the rankings. Soderling is a man on a mission, and he could cause a few more upsets before the Australian Open series is done.
And so to the creme-de-la-creme, and they were holed up in the glamorous surroundings of the Khalifa International Tennis and Squash Complex in the Qatari capital of Doha.
It is a location that oozes wealth: no surprise, then, that the prize money tops a million dollars, more than the combined offerings of Chennai and Brisbane. No surprise, either, that the dry, comfortable heat of the Gulf drew a class field: Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal ably supported by Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Nikolay Davydenko.
Many expected a fifth meeting in as many weeks between the top two seeds. Federer and Nadal had met at the end of November in the World Tour Finals, in two charity exhibitions and in the final of an exho tournament in Abu Dhabi last week. But a Doha match-up was not to be.
Nadal’s progress was severely hampered by the flu -he lost an uncharacteristic 6-0 set before beating Lukas Lacko in the second round. Then, in a repeat of last year’s final, he was put to the sword by Davydenko, 6-2, 6-3. Nadal went on to defend his doubles title, but has opted to stay in Doha to recover for a few days rather than fly immediately to Melbourne.
Federer, too, looked and sounded as though he had a head-cold, but it certainly did not impact on his performance. Initially, he looked a little rusty -he had, after all, opted to take very little time off between his end-of-season string of wins and the Doha event. But his golden racket was soon burnished by wins over the young Dutch talent of Thomas Schoorel, close friend Marco Chiudinelli and the Davis Cup-winning Viktor Troicki.
Next, the returning heavyweight, Tsonga, was on the receiving end of an increasingly confident Federer, before Davydenko faced the Swiss for the 17th time in their careers. The Russian beat Federer in the Doha semis last year, and so was bidding to become the only man to beat both Federer and Nadal three times in a single tournament: as well as Doha last year, he had pulled off the feat at the 2009 WTFs.
Neither Federer nor Davydenko had dropped a set prior to the final, but Federer had not so much as faced a deuce on his serve in his previous two matches. Unfortunately for Davydenko, the Swiss maintained that record through the entire final, too.
Davydenko thrives in dry, fast conditions that suit his flat, crisp ground strokes, his precise tactics, and early striking of the ball. In Federer, though, he faced a player even more adept at penetrating drives and acute angled put-aways to both wings. The two men have also introduced a new wide, swinging serve that drags the receiver outside the court to open the attack for an angled winner.
Their combined talents produced a scintillating display of tennis played at high pace and with high focus. Almost every ball was taken on the rise and returned to the lines, and both men moved like lightening around their territory. But there never seemed any doubt about the conclusion.
Few men manage to combine the appearance of leisurely calm with hungry intent quite as well as Federer, and the Swiss was clearly hungry. His guard did not drop and his focus did not stray -though he was a little too casual in a couple of cheeky drop-shot attempts. From the moment he broke Davydenko’s first service game to the conclusion of the match, 6-3 6-4, with a love service game, this was impressive tennis: beautifully chilling.
So Federer, already on his way to Australia before the day was finished, took his third Doha title, his 67th title overall, and looks set to start 2011 much as he ended 2010: aiming to be the best in the world. The proof will be in Melbourne, but the odds must be shortening by the day for a repeat of last year’s victory Down Under.