Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, Murray spread their favours as Australia beckons
Marianne Bevis takes a look at where the top players will be undertaking their Australian Open preparations
The Christmas presents may be unwrapped, but northern latitudes remain tightly wrapped against the winter weather.
For the elite of tennis, though—from family men Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer to still-singles Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray—the last week of December passes in hotter, drier regions.
For as 2014 gives way to 2015, and with barely time to draw breath between one season and the next, there has been plenty of work and play but precious little rest as the best in the world prepare for the first Grand Slam of the year: the Australian Open begins in just two weeks’ time.
Not that any of that famous quartet, nor the two other men who won Grand Slams last year, Stan Wawrinka and Marin Cilic, has been idle in the wake of the last prestigious stop in the tennis calendar, the ATP World Tour Finals in London.
Federer and Wawrinka headed straight into a demanding Davis Cup final—back-to-back singles and doubles action—to win Switzerland’s first trophy. Then they headed home before Christmas to play each other in a charity fund-raiser, part of a December-long Federer shuttle between Delhi, Dubai and Switzerland for IPTL action, awards ceremonies and training.
Djokovic, Murray and Cilic also took in plenty of IPTL action, while Nadal grafted his way back to health from an appendectomy and back treatment.
It was perhaps for the last of these players that the lucrative six-man exho, the Mubadala World Tennis Championship in Abu Dhabi, would be the most telling.
This glamorous opener to the season, beginning on New Year’s Day, always attracts the cream of the crop: Along with world No3 Nadal, the 2015 field involved defending and three-time champion Djokovic, the No4 ranked Wawrinka, No6 Murray and, replacing injured Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Gael Monfils, No14 Feliciano Lopez and a returning Nicolas Almagro in his first appearance since foot-surgery last June.
Nadal had started 2014 with a bang, winning the Doha title—which he aims to defend next week—and reaching the final in Australia. In Melbourne, though, he showed the first signs of a back problem that would niggle through much of the year, but went on to win Rio and reach the Miami final before making his usual power-blast through Madrid, Rome and Paris—title, final, and a ninth victory at Roland Garros.
However, after a fourth-round loss at Wimbledon, a wrist injury kept Nadal out of competition until Beijing, and after seven matches, he ended his season to heal the appendix, back and wrist.
Nadal’s first match in Abu Dhabi showed some expected match-rust in a 6-2, 6-0 loss to Murray. In truth, as Murray commented, the tennis was more competitive than the scoreline suggested: Nadal failed to convert multiple break point chances, forcing Murray through one 15-minute service game in the second set.
But by his second match, against Wawrinka, Nadal was already looking sharper. The tennis was patchy, some brilliant rallies leavened by error-strewn games. Come the first-set tie-break, however, Nadal had his familiar look—drenched, bristling, strutting—and took it 7-1. He went on to claim the match 6-3.
The speed with which Nadal played himself into a competition mind-set has certainly thrown down the gauntlet, though the real test begins when the first points of the year are up for grabs next week. In Doha, Nadal is second seed to Djokovic’s top spot, and has a straight-forward draw until Berdych in the semis.
Djokovic, who beat Wawrinka comfortably in Abu Dhabi, was forced to pull out of the final against Murray after waking up with a fever. Fortunately for the Serb, he has a few days for the short flight to Doha, where he is also in the doubles draw.
If Abu Dhabi was an important yard-stick for Nadal, it was arguably just as significant for Murray. He ended 2014 in an exhausted loss to Federer after playing six back-to-back tournaments to qualify for London. Not that he rested up for too long: after stepping up for an exho at the O2 when Federer pulled out of the final with injury, Murray played the IPTL in the Philippines, parted ways with his long-standing coaching associates Dani Vallverdu and Jez Green, hit Miami for his usual training block, changed clothing sponsor, and jetted to Abu Dhabi to score his first win over one of the “big four” since Wimbledon 18 months ago.
Not a bad way to open the season, and he has opted out of the ATP warm-up tournies next week to play instead the team-based ITF Hopman Cup with Heather Watson.
Federer, who began last year outside the top four for the first time in over a decade, opens 2015 back in Brisbane where he was losing finalist to Lleyton Hewitt last year. Juan Martin del Potro and Cilic may have pulled out of the draw with injury, but Federer still has Grigor Dimitrov in his half and Kei Nishikori and Milos Raonic in the bottom section.
Federer will not play doubles this time, however, opting instead to allow time for sight-seeing.
Alone of the top 10, Wawrinka will play in Chennai, and with good reason. He won there last year ahead of claiming his first Major title in Australia.
Who plays where ahead of the Australian Open
Week beginning 4 January
Brisbane International: ATP 250, 28-man draw [10hrs ahead of GMT]
Defending champion, Lleyton Hewitt
Seeds: 1 Roger Federer; 2 Kei Nishikori; 3 Milos Raonic; 4 Grigor Dimitrov; 5 Kevin Anderson; 6 Gilles Simon; 7 Alex Dolgopolov; 8 Julien Benneteau
Qatar Open (Doha): ATP 250, 32-man draw [3hrs ahead of GMT]
Defending champion, Rafael Nadal
Seeds: 1 Novak Djokovic [debut appearance]; 2 Rafael Nadal; 3 Tomas Berdych; 4 David Ferrer; 5 Philip Kohlschreiber; 6 Richard Gasquet; 7 Ivo Karlovic; 8 Leonardo Mayer
Chennai Open (India): ATP 250, 28-man draw [5hrs ahead of GMT]
Defending champion, Stan Wawrinka
Seeds: 1 Stan Wawrinka; 2 Feliciano Lopez; 3 Roberto Bautista Agut; 4 David Goffiin; 5 Guillermo Garcia-Lopez; 6 Yen-Hsun Lu; 7 Marcel Granollers; 8 Gilles Muller
Hopman Cup (Perth, W Australia): ITF team challenge [8hrs ahead of GMT]
Eight national teams each comprising one man and one woman in singles and mixed doubles round-robin format.
Defending champions, France
Australia: Casey Dellacqua/Matt Ebden
Canada: Milos Raonic/Eugenie Bouchard
Czech Rep: Lucie Safarova/Adam Pavlasek
Italy: Flavia Pennetta/Fabio Fognini
France: Alize Cornet/Benoit Paire
GB: Heather Watson/Andy Murray
Poland: Agnieszka Radwanska/Jerzy Janowicz
USA: Serena Williams/John Isner
Week commencing 12 January
Auckland International: ATP 250, 28-man draw
Defending champion, John Isner
Top seeds: David Ferrer, Ernests Gulbis, Roberto Bautista Agut, Kevin Anderson, Tommy Robredo, Gael Monfils [status unknown], John Isner
Sydney International: ATP 250, 28-man draw
Defending champion, Juan Martin del Potro
Top seeds: Fabio Fognini, David Goffin, Philip Kohlschreiber, Julien Benneteau, Leonardo Mayer, Jeremy Chardy, Juan Martin del Potro [status unknown]
AAMI Kooyong Classic Invitational, Melbourne
Defending champion, Kei Nishikori
Players (eight-man round-robin): Kei Nishikori, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga [status unknown], Feliciano Lopez, Gilles Simon, Alex Dolgopolov, Richard Gasquet, Fernando Verdasco, Jordan Thompson