Now, though, the Australian Open and its five hard-court overtures—from Doha, to Chennai to Down Under—have come and gone in a blaze of thrillers and two 35-year-old Grand Slam champions, Serena Williams and Roger Federer.
These two superstars of the tennis stage are now enjoying some ‘me-time’, but are among a select few to keep their heads below the parapet through February.
For while the likes of Federer and Andy Murray will not return to court until Dubai, before the season heads into March and North America’s famed double-header of Indian Wells and Miami, most of their colleagues are targeting the big ranking points that are available during one of the busiest months of the year.
No fewer than 12 ATP tournaments, including the first 500s of the year—four in as many weeks—fill a February schedule that also brings huge adjustments in time zones and surfaces.
Lovers of clay have headed east from Australia to play South America’s “Golden Swing”, a four-stop, sun-kissed tour through Ecuador, Argentina and Brazil. Many more head west and north for a brief return to the indoor hard courts of Europe. Some have even accommodated the first round of Davis Cup action en route, taking in assorted surfaces and time zones. Yet in fewer than three weeks, all will begin the transition back to sunny hard courts.
But these can also be tough times for tournament directors and fans who anticipate a star-studded line-up, only to fall victim to the player fatigue and injury that follow the tough Australian swing.
And the opening 500 of the year has been the first to feel that chill. For the second consecutive year, the ABN AMRO tournament in Rotterdam has seen its top two seeds withdraw from the start-list. In 2016, Federer sustained a knee injury requiring surgery after the Australian Open, while Richard Gasquet picked up a groin injury on his way to the Montpellier title and became ill with flu on his way to the Dutch city.
This year, the tournament scored a coup by confirming both No3 Stan Wawrinka, champion in Rotterdam in 2015, and the resurgent Rafael Nadal, up to No6 after a superb run to the final in Melbourne, and opting unusually for the hard indoors rather than his usual clay.
However, days before the tournament, both have pulled out. First came Wawrinka, with a knee injury picked up on his way to the semis in Melbourne, where he exacerbated the problem in his five-set thriller against Federer. Thus Tournament Director Richard Krajicek was forced to announce:
“Stan called me this afternoon to share the bad news. Test results today showed that he is not able to play matches as a result of his knee. The medical advice came as a complete and unpleasant surprise, not just for us, but for him as well.”
Nadal, he continued, would therefore become top seed—but not for long. The Spaniard announced:
“I am very sorry to announce I won’t be able to play in Rotterdam. After last year’s absence from some tournaments, I started this season well and made a significant effort during the Australian swing. It’s because of this that my doctors have strongly advised me to take it easy and give enough rest to my body before competing again to avoid further injuries.”
Krajicek admitted that he had quickly tried to replace Nadal with another marquee name from among the top five and Federer but time had been too short.
Nadal referred, of course, to an injury that he picked up during the French Open last year. He pulled out of his favourite Major, returned for the Olympics, but would play only eight more matches in 2016. He is scheduled now to return straight to the hot and hard courts of Acapulco at the end of February.
The top seed in Rotterdam now is No7 Marin Cilic, whose opening-round loss in Montpellier this week should ensure he is fit and fresh for a tournament where he made a final run in 2014.
Second in line in Rotterdam is Dominic Thiem, who made such an impression on his debut appearance in the main draw in 2014 by taking Murray to three long sets in the second round. Now the young Austrian is ranked No8 after winning seven titles and making the semis at the French Open last year. However, since Roland Garros, his form and fitness have been up and down, and after a second-round exit at Wimbledon, he won only 10 matches last year. This week in Sofia, he has followed Cilic’s example by losing his opening match to a man ranked 80 places lower.
One bright light in the gloomy northern climes of Europe, however, is being shone by world No13 Grigor Dimitrov, who is playing in his home capital of Sofia for the first time in the tournament’s short life.
The Bulgarian played to a packed and chanting 12,500 crowd in his pulsating opening match against the dangerous big man, Jerzy Janowicz. Indeed, the Pole won the opening set with an early break. But Dimitrov has been working his way back up the rankings since last summer, and played one of the matches of the Australian Open against Nadal in the semis. Now he began to show that same form in holding through a seven-and-a-half-minute opening game in the second set, broke to level the match, and got the key break in the third set at 5-5.
Dimitrov, who went on to serve it out, 7-5, is heading to Rotterdam next week, along with Sofia’s No2 seed David Goffin, who has already set up a semi contest against Roberto Bautista Agut. The nimble Belgian, who also enjoyed a strong run to the quarters at the Australian Open, has lost in the first round on all three previous visits to Rotterdam: He will hope to change that—and boost himself to new career high—next week.
Another eagerly anticipated name on Rotterdam’s list is that of teenage star Sascha Zverev, who is seeded No4 in Montpellier. He wowed the Dutch fans in reaching the quarters last year while still ranked No70. Since then, he has made the finals of Nice and Halle, won St Petersburg, and came within touching distance of Nadal in their five-set, third-round contest in Melbourne.
Also appearing in the Dutch city is 2014 champion and world No12 Tomas Berdych and defending champion Martin Klizan, along with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Gasquet.
However, barring mishap, there will be a chance to see all the top ranks before frantic February is done—all except one, that is. Notable by his absence until Indian Wells is No2 Novak Djokovic, who has always transitioned from his record-making runs in Australia to Dubai, where he is a four-time champion. So a surprise, perhaps, that he should drop Dubai after his early loss in Australia, even allowing for his one rubber in Serbia’s Davis Cup win over Russia.
But then, as Federer proved with his winning return after a six-month lay-off, a good break can work wonders, and the Serb has his own mountain to climb in March: He defends titles in both Indian Wells and Miami.
South American clay:
Quito 250: Ivo Karlovic, Albert Ramos-Vinolas, Paolo Lorenzi, Thomas Bellucci
Buenos Aires 250: Kei Nishikori, Pablo Cuevas, David Ferrer, Pablo Carreno Busta, Albert Ramos-Vinolas, Paolo Lorenzi, Joao Sousa, Federico Delbonis
Rio 500: Kei Nishikori, Dominic Thiem, Pablo Cuevas [defending champion], David Ferrer, Pablo Carreno Busta, Paolo Lorenzi, Joao Sousa, Federico Delbonis
Sao Paulo 250: Pablo Cuevas [defending champion], Pablo Carreno Busta, Joao Sousa, Federico Delbonis Albert Ramos-Vinolas, Fabio Fognini, Diego Schwartzman, Thomaz Bellucci
Montpellier 250: Marin Cilic, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Richard Gasquet [defending champion], Alexander Zverev, Feliciano Lopez, Mischa Zverev, Marcel Granollers, Fernando Verdasco
Sofia 250: Dominic Thiem, David Goffin, Grigor Dimitrov, Roberto Bautista Agut [defending champion], Viktor Troicki, Marcos Baghdatis, Martin Klizan
Rotterdam 500: Marin Cilic, Dominic Thiem, David Goffin, Tomas Berdych, Grigor Dimitrov, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Roberto Bautista Agut
Memphis 250: Ivo Karlovic, John Isner, Sam Querrey, Steve Johnson, Bernard Tomic, Kevin Anderson, Taylor Fritz, Dustin Brown
Marseille 250: Gael Monfils, Grigor Dimitrov, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Nick Kyrgios [defending champion], Lucas Pouille, Alexander Zverev, Richard Gasquet, Gilles Simon,
Delray Beach 250: Milos Raonic, Ivo Karlovic, Jack Sock, Steve Johnson, Bernard Tomic, Sam Querrey, Juan Martin del Potro
Dubai 500: Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka [defending champion], Roger Federer, Gael Monfils, Tomas Berdych, Lucas Pouille, Gilles Muller, Viktor Troicki
Acapulco 500: Milos Raonic, Rafael Nadal, Marin Cilic, Dominic Thiem [defending champion], David Goffin, Nick Kyrgios, Jack Sock, Ivo Karlovic
MORE: The latest football news
MORE: The latest tennis news