2012 tennis fires up: Nadal, Federer, Murray begin campaigns
Marianne Bevis examines the tournaments taking place across the world as the new tennis season begins to take shape
The first month of the tennis season is also one of its most challenging, with the run to the first Grand Slam in mid-January looking 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””and the mercury is currently touching 400C””beckon tennis’s protagonists to the “Grand Slam of Asia/Pacific”.
Two ATP and WTA combined tournaments in the Australian Open Series are played in Brisbane this week and in Sydney next. Hobart and Auckland host the remaining Antipodean warm-up events for women and men respectively next week.
But already, a handful of exhibition events has been and gone. The most lucrative and high profile of them, held last week in Abu Dhabi, featured five of the top six ranked men competing for an all-or-nothing $250,000 purse.
World No1 Novak Djokovic, debuting at the six-man event, opened his 2012 campaign in considerable style, beating Gael Monfils, Roger Federer and David Ferrer with some glittering tennis.
Usually seen as a glitzy place to knock the rust from their rackets, practise a few new shots, and try some fresh tactics, the Serb already looked like a well-oiled machine and firmly threw down the gauntlet ahead of Melbourne.
He sounded ominously confident as he walked away with his lavish prize: “Usually at this stage, you are trying to find your speed on the court, agility, just dynamics of every stroke. But I found it already, to be honest, right away after the first match.”
He has no more matches scheduled until Melbourne itself””and doesn’t appear to need them.
Nadal, however, suffered a very rare defeat at the hands of Ferrer but went on to beat Federer, who looked the most under-cooked of all the participants.
The Swiss, who confirmed after winning the year-end World Tour Finals that he will continue to work with coach Paul Annacone this year, clearly does need some more court time and he will get it in the third ATP event this week in Doha, along with Nadal and the sixth man from Abu Dhabi, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
The charismatic Frenchman enjoyed an outstanding end to 2011 and clearly wants to ride that wave into 2012. He will pack in a third event, the non-ATP Kooyong Classic, between Doha and the Australian Open.
As for Ferrer, he also produced some of his best ever tennis to reach No5 last year, and performed right to the bitter end in beating Juan Martin del Potro in a five-set marathon at the Davis Cup final. Ferrer has the work ethic, fitness and now the confidence to trouble all the top men and will be hoping to replicate the hard-court skills that took him to the semis of the Australian Open last year.
Andy Murray has made some major changes at the start of 2012 after reaching and losing the Australian Open final for the last two years in a row. On neither of those occasions did he play an ATP event before Melbourne: This year he plays Brisbane as top seed and has also entered the doubles competition with Marcos Baghdatis.
Murray’s most significant development, however, has been the appointment of eight-times Grand Slam winner, Ivan Lendl, as his coach. The Czech, renowned for his meticulous preparation and superlative fitness, lost his first four Slam finals before winning eight of his next 15.
Murray summed up his suitability: “He has been through a lot of the same things that I have been through, so I am sure he can help me mentally with certain things”¦I spoke to him about a lot of the top players, and how to see their weakness”¦how I can exploit them. So I am sure he will help me very tactically as well.”
Murray last year joined an exclusive group of players to have reached the semi-finals or better of all four Grand Slams in a year and temporarily overtook Federer in the rankings after a three-title-run in Asia in the autumn. Lendl could be that extra ingredient that takes him to his elusive first Major.
Perhaps the most star-studded ATP event””and especially so in its 20th anniversary””is Doha. The Technicolor Middle-eastern oasis of violet, lime and dayglo-yellow marked its special birthday with a show-stopper of a display: its two top seeds, Federer and Nadal, playing under the night-dark sky in an arena lit by 4,000 candles.
The two have topped the seedings in Doha for the last four years and Federer comes into the event as defending champion. For the third year in a row, he will meet Nikolay Davydenko, though in rather different circumstances from their previous matches. In 2010, Davydenko beat Federer in the semis and went on to beat Nadal in the final, and last year, the Russian beat Nadal in the semis but lost to Federer in the final.
In 2012, now ranked No41, he finds himself playing Federer for the 18th time in their careers””in the first round. It is a dangerous opener for the Swiss who will have to recover his wavering game of Abu Dhabi to hold off a style of flat, attacking tennis that thrives in the dry desert conditions. But should Federer progress, there is every prospect of a ninth rematch in 12 months with Tsonga in the semi-finals: heir first meeting of 2011 was also in the semis of Doha.
So with fewer than two weeks of preparation left, who is playing where?
Qatar Open (Doha): 2-8 January
ATP 250 32-man draw. It has more than double the prize money of Brisbane and Chennai””over $1m. Federer has won three times while Nadal, who has competed in Doha four times, has yet to win.
2012 participants: Rafael Nadal (No2); Roger Federer (No3); Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (No6); Gael Monfils (No16); Viktor Troicki (No22); Alex Bogomolov Jr (No34); Dr Mikhail Youzhny (No35); Andreas Seppi (No38).
Brisbane International: 1-8 January
ATP 250 32-man draw. Defending champion, Robin Soderling, is still out of action with glandular fever and will not play in the Australian Open. Murray is top seed and plays his first match of 2012 against Mikhail Kukushkin. If successful, he could meet Baghdatis and Bernard Tomic en route to the final.
2012 participants: Andy Murray (No4); Gilles Simon (No12); Alexandr Dolgopolov (No15); Florian Mayer (No23) (pulled out in first found with groin injury); Kei Nishikori (No25); Radek Stepanek (No28); Jurgen Melzer (No33); Bernard Tomic (No42).
Chennai Open: 2-8 January
ATP 250 32-man draw. Marin Cilic (champion in 2009 and 2010) withdrew with injury leaving Janko Tipsarevic””a newcomer to the top 10 in 2011″”as top seed. He could face defending champion, Stan Wawrinka, on his way to the final.
2012 participants: Janko Tipsarevic (No9); Nicolas Almagro (No10); Stan Wawrinka (No17); Milos Raonic (No31); Ivan Dodig (No36); Fabio Fognini (No48); Xavier Malisse (No49).
Hopman Cup: 31 December-7 January
Played in Perth, Western Australia and managed by the International Tennis Federation, the competition comprises national teams of one man and woman who each plays a singles match and a mixed doubles against every team in their round robin.
2012 participants: Czech Republic (Petra Kvitova, Tomas Berdych); France (Marion Bartoli, Richard Gasquet); Spain (Anabel Medina Garrigues, Fernando Verdasco); USA (Bethanie Mattek-Sands, Mardy Fish): Denmark (Caroline Wozniacki, Frederik Nielsen); Australia (Jarmila Gajdosova, Lleyton Hewitt); Bulgaria (Tsvetana Pironkova, Grigor Dimitrov); China (Li Na, Wu Di).
Auckland International: 8-14 January
ATP 250 32-man draw. Ferrer follows up his finals finish in Abu Dhabi by defending the Auckland title.
2012 participants: David Ferrer (No5); Nicolas Almagro (No10); Fernando Verdasco (No24); Juan Monaco (No26); Juan Ignacio Chela (No29); Kevin Anderson (No32); Tomaz Bellucci (No37); Donald Young (No39).
Sydney International: 8-14 January
ATP 250 32-man draw. Del Potro began his return to the tour, ranked No259, by winning a three-tie-break thriller in his Sydney opener in 2011. He will build on his impressive comeback at the same event, which is without its title-holder, Gilles Simon.
2012 participants: Juan Martin del Potro (No11); John Isner (No18); Richard Gasquet (No19); Feliciano Lopez (No20); Viktor Troicki (No22); Florian Mayer (No23) (pulled out of Brisbane with groin injury); Marcel Granollers (No27); Radek Stepanek (No28).
AAMI Kooyong Classic: 11-14 January
A non-ATP eight-man round-robin event held at the historic Kooyong Club in the suburbs of Melbourne.
2012 participants: Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (No6); Tomas Berdych (No7); Mardy Fish (No8); Andy Roddick (No14); Gael Monfils (No16); Milos Raonic (No31); Jurgen Melzer (No33); Bernard Tomic (No42).