Tennis’s hard road from Rotterdam to Indian Wells
Rotterdam poses the first big challenge for Soderling, Murray and Berdych on road to the hard-court Masters
The first three months of the tennis season pose some of its biggest challenges.
First, there is the sheer quantity of tournaments. From the second day of January to the last day of March, the tour squeezes in 16 hard court venues -five of them indoors.
Then there’s the reverse psychology factor. With time for, at most, two 250 events at the opening of the year -though most men play only one -the tour is suddenly plunged into the rigours of its first Major. Then there is not a Masters in sight until the final fortnight of March – two of them on the trot.
And as if to mess with their heads and their games, the players face two contrasting paths before the paint has barely dried on the roll of honour for the Australian Open. Should they take a break from the arduous hard courts and head for the clay of South America -proffered like an apple in the Garden of Eden? Or should they persevere with the surface that draws them down the weeks to the prestige and prizes of the Indian Wells and Miami Masters?
The temptations of the hard-court road are not to be sniffed at, though. The two concluding Masters are the richest in the calendar, offering prize money worth more than $3.6m at each. Along the way, there are three 500 events in three consecutive weeks, the most of any season in the year: Rotterdam, Memphis and Dubai. The last of the three also happens to be the richest of all the 500s.
So one dilemma, particularly for those who enjoy the clay, is balancing the attraction of a month’s sojourn in Latin America’s Golden Swing against the sensible -albeit punishing -choice of biting the post-Australian bullet, putting in the miles on those hard courts, and honing their game for the north American Masters.
A second dilemma is the balance of rest versus practice, match play versus conditioning. For some, there has been little choice. Rafael Nadal is in rehab following his Melbourne quarter-final injury and is only now beginning to train in preparation, he hopes, for the Davis Cup at the end of the month. For the second year in succession, he will miss the entire hard swing until Indian Wells.
Novak Djokovic found that a week’s rest between his victorious Australian run and the start of Rotterdam was not enough. The shoulder that he taped up in Melbourne demanded more time and his first match back on the tour will begin the defence of his Dubai title.
The third of tennis’s triumvirate, Roger Federer, will also play nothing but Dubai ahead of Indian Wells. It’s his Ã¢â‚¬Ëœsecond home’ tournament, though he missed the last two years through injury or illness. With poor performances in the two Masters last year, he has the chance to put on some valuable points.
But what of the rest? No top 10 players ventured out in the first week of February, and that opened the door for two new names on the ATP winners’ board -both in front of a home crowd. South African Kevin Anderson took the Johannesburg title while Croatian Ivan Dodig continued his impressive rise of more than 100 places in the last year to take the Zagreb Indoor title.
Several of the big players, though, have broken cover this week. And there are two trends. Some have headed to North America for the duration: San Jose attracted Fernando Verdasco, Gael Monfils, Juan Martin del Potro and Sam Querrey, who all then head off to the 500 event in Memphis, picking up Andy Roddick along the way.
But the popular route for the rest -indeed the best -is the $1.5m Rotterdam 500. Putting aside Nadal, Federer and Djokovic, the next four ranked men have headed to what is one of the biggest indoor events in the world.
Top seed and defending champion Robin Soderling has already won in Brisbane this year and looked remarkably strong in Melbourne. He reached the fourth round without losing a set but was then non-plussed by the unconventional tennis of Alexandr Dolgopolov.
He came back in his usual domineering style to win his opener in Rotterdam for the loss of just five games, but he has some dangerous opponents to out-hit if he’s to win this title again, including a possible quarter-final against the man he beat in last year’s final, No11 ranked Mikhail Youzhny.
The return of Andy Murray, so soundly beaten in the Australian final little more than a week ago, was keenly watched, all the more so because he talked of taking a break to prepare for the March Masters.
His lack of preparation showed, too, in a severe first round test against world No20 Marcos Baghdatis. The Cypriot is always a dangerous opponent, and this season more than ever after a concerted training regime over the Christmas.
Murray made a quick early break but then fell away to a 6-4, 6-1 loss. He is scheduled to play doubles with his brother this week, but with a sore left wrist and what appears to be tired concentration, that decision may be questionable.
The story so far is very different for world No6 Tomas Berdych. After a shocking falling-off of form in the second half of 2010, the tall Czech has started to show his true colours again in 2011. Decent results in Chennai and Melbourne suggest that his first-round 6-1, 6-2 demolition of the No26-ranked Guillermo Garcia-Lopez -dropping just six points on serve -was far from a fluke. His subsequent two-hour battle against Dmitry Tursunov then took him past the second round for the first time in six Rotterdam appearances.
Berdych aims to play in Marseille next week and then Dubai the week after, so his form and fitness will be thoroughly tested. If he proves himself during the rest of February, he will become -just as he was in Indian Wells and Miami last year -a formidable challenger for one of those Masters titles.
Marin Cilic is another big man who seems to be recovering from a slump -he dropped from 15 to 28 in the last fortnight. He reached the quarter-finals with a straightforward win over Jurgen Melzer in little more than an hour.
A former top-10 player, the Croatian won both Zagreb and Chennai in 2009 and 2010. That’s quite a record to live up to for a man who is still only 22. The fact that he fell early in both events this year, therefore, should not detract from the talent of the man. Wins over two strong players at Rotterdam will give him a confidence boost, and that makes him dangerous for the rest of this hard-court season, especially as he now lurks in the early rounds as an unseeded player.
Russia’s Nikolay Davydenko, in contrast, continued in vain to search for the form he produced at the beginning of last year. It sits uncomfortably to see him ranked No34, his lowest position in six and a half years. Indeed he had not been outside the top dozen for almost six years until the very end of 2010.
An early flourish to reach the final of Doha has been followed by first round defeats in Melbourne and now Rotterdam. Fans of the crisp, fast shotmaking of Davydenko will hope for a turn-around very soon. At the moment, the signs are far from positive for a man now in his 30th year.
Not so David Ferrer, despite his first-round loss in Rotterdam. He’s enjoying his highest ranking -No6 -since October 2008 and his only previous defeat this year was in the Australian Open semis against Murray. A short break from the hard courts that have added so many points in recent months will probably do him no harm at all -especially as he is headed to the South American clay to defend his Acapulco title.
As for the remaining challenges of this vicious hard court swing, Dubai will be the first to see the return of Federer and Djokovic. Their compelling rivalry continues to unfold in an ever-more fascinating storyline at each tournament, particularly with the No2 and 3 rankings poised between the two.
A bigger challenge will be Indian Wells: it’s the biggest tournament outside the four Majors. It features all the top players for the first time since Melbourne, Ã¢â‚¬Ëœhawkeye’ technology on all eight courts, and possibly the best backdrop on the tennis tour. Followed by the colourful Sony Ericsson in charismatic Miami, the culminating double-Masters challenge should be well worth the effort.