Barely a week has gone by since the scheduled places for Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Stan Wawrinka and Milos Raonic had to be refilled at the Mubadala World Tennis Championships, a six-man exhibition event in Abu Dhabi. All four men needed longer to rehab their long-standing injury problems.
Then Nadal and Andy Murray withdrew from the first ATP tournament to get off the mark in Brisbane, while Djokovic pulled out of the Qatar Open in Doha. Dominic Thiem went down with a virus at the same tournament and could not play his semi-final.
Meanwhile, Kei Nishikori’s return from injury was delayed when he withdrew from the entire Australian swing—while Murray travelled to Melbourne not to take part in the first Major of the year but to undergo the surgeon’s knife.
However, where the five ATP tournaments that usher in year’s first Major have lost out, the fast pace, no points and less pressurised formats of a plethora of non-tour events have mopped up.
The Hopman Cup has already packed out the Perth arena for almost a week as Roger Federer, Alexander Zverev, Jack Sock, and David Goffin—top-10 players all—got the competitive juices running in some entertaining but nevertheless earnest matches, and laid down a few markers in the process.
This week, another established precursor to the Australian Open, the Kooyong Classic, is also marking its 30th anniversary, and like the Hopman Cup, it has attracted a stellar field—helped not a little by its location just down the road from Melbourne Park. It has been helped not a little, too, by the delayed returns of Nadal and Djokovic, who have signed up to the four-day round-robin event that begins tomorrow.
And the appeal is obvious: practice sessions aplenty on the match courts of the Australian Open, interspersed with some competitive matches at the famous old club of Kooyong. And the commitment is light, just a couple of matches in a slimmed-down format with a tie-break third set, but against some strong opposition. So popular has it proved, indeed, that five top-10 players, plus Djokovic, will be in action.
Tournament director Peter Johnston explained: “Rafa was looking for match-play and of course we were more than happy to oblige. The addition of both Novak and Rafa changes our schedule and the way we will run the four days, but that’s what Kooyong is all about, we are here to help the players get ready for the Open.”
But that’s not all: Nadal and Djokovic have also signed up to the ‘tournament in a night’, back at Melbourne Park on Margaret Court Arena on Wednesday evening. And if ever an event was designed to sharpen the focus and reactions, this is it.
Tie Break Tens sees eight players compete in knock-out, 10-point tie breaks, with the winner taking home a tidy US $250,000 prize.
The event, which has been played in the past in London and Madrid, takes just one evening, and is offers some crowd-pleasing match-ups:
· Djokovic vs Lleyton Hewitt
· Nadal vs Lucas Pouille
· Tomas Berdych vs Nick Kyrgios, who is clearly revelling in the chance to perform on home soil—straight after winning in Brisbane, he has also played Fast4 (see below)
· Wawrinka vs Thiem, and a particularly notable appearance this, as Wawrinka has played no other event since Wimbledon, after which he underwent knee surgery.
More key players making their first competitive move of the year feature in the two ATP events in this final week before Melbourne, such as Juan Martin del Potro and David Ferrer, the former making huge ground in the latter stages of 2017 and the latter enduring repeated losses as he nursed foot problems.
Sam Querrey, who hit a career high No13 after high-profile runs at Wimbledon and the US Open, also fell away at the end of the 2017, while John Isner edged back up the ranks: Both make opening appearances in Auckland. Fabio Fognini, at 47 a year ago, blew hot and cold in 2017 but made it to 27. Now a father, can he get his tennis back on track at his first tournament this year?
Many things to look out for in these first showings, then, but none more so than the form of three former Australian champions: Nadal, Djokovic, and Wawrinka.
Mubadala World Tennis Championships, Abu Dhabi
Played: Final, Kevin Anderson beat Roberto Bautista Agut; other players—Dominic Thiem, Pablo Carreno Busta, Andrey Rublev
Hopman Cup, Perth
Played (in ranking order, win-loss): Roger Federer (4-0), Alexander Zverev (1-3), David Goffin (3-0), Jack Sock (1-2), Yuichi Sugita (1-2), Karen Khachanov (1-2), Vasek Pospisil 0-3), Thanasi Kokkinakis (2-1)
Brisbane International ATP
Played: Grigor Dimitrov (SF), Nick Kyrgios, (champion), Milos Raonic (R2), Gilles Muller (R1), Diego Schwartzman (R1), Damir Dzumhur (R1), Mischa Zverev (R2)
[Other deep runs: Ryan Harrison, Alex de Minaur]
Qatar Open (Doha) ATP
Played: Thiem (SF), Carreno Busta (R1), Tomas Berdych (R1), Albert Ramos-Vinolas (R1), Richard Gasquet (R2), Filip Krajinovic (R1), Fernando Verdasco (R2), Feliciano Lopez (R2)
[Other deep runs: Gael Monfils champion, Rublev, RU]
Pune (India) ATP
Played: Marin Cilic (SF), Anderson (final), Bautista Agut (R2), Benoit Paire (SF), Robin Haase (QF)
[Other deep runs: Gilles Simon champion]
Fast4 Showdown, Sydney Olympic Park
Played: ‘Home’ Kyrgios and Hewitt took on ‘world’ Dimitrov and Alexander Zverev in singles and doubles, in short-form, first-to-four-game sets.
Auckland International, ATP, all week
Playing: Sock, Juan Martin del Potro, Sam Querrey, John Isner, Bautista Agut, Pablo Cuevas, David Ferrer plus Khachanov, Harrison, Denis Shapovalov
Sydney International, ATP, all week
Playing: Ramos-Vinolas, Muller, Schwartzman, Fabio Fognini, Adrian Mannarino, Philipp Kohlschreiber, Dzumhur, Mischa Zverev
Kooyong Classic, Melbourne, Tuesday to Friday
Playing (by ranking): Nadal, Thiem, Cilic, Goffin, Carreno Busta, Anderson, Djokovic, Gasquet, Matt Ebden, Marcos Baghdatis, Bernard Tomic, Yoshihito Nishioka
Tiebreak 10s, Melbourne Park, Wednesday
Players (by ranking): Nadal, Thiem, Wawrinka, Djokovic, Kyrgios, Pouille, Berdych, Lleyton Hewitt
World Tennis Challenge, Adelaide, Monday to Wednesday
Playing: Australia, Mark Philippousis/Kokkinakis; USA, Robbie Ginepri/Frances Tiafoe; International team, Mats Wilander/Monfils
· Monday night: Australia vs International
· Tuesday night: USA vs International
· Wednesday night: Australia vs USA
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BIOGRAPHY: Eric Bailly