Which of the young generation will reach Indian Wells and Miami in prime condition and will the veteran champions continue to hold sway?
The Australian Open and its five hard-court overtures pack a big punch for players after an all-too-short off-season where a Christmas with family struggles to find space amid hard-court training and optimistic rehabilitation.
Some could not quite meet the Melbourne deadline as they battled back to full fitness: former champions Stan Wawrinka, Novak Djokovic, and Rafael Nadal all failed to play a tournament ahead of the Australian Open, and each then wrestled with their physical demons—losing in Rounds 2, 4 and the semis respectively. The likes of Andy Murray and Kei Nishikori did not even make the draw.
In the event, it was the 36-year-old Roger Federer who survived Marin’s Cilic’s five-set examination in the final. The remarkable Swiss, despite—or perhaps because of—knee surgery exactly two years before, proved that a finely-cut schedule can work wonders.
Which begged the question come February: How would Federer cut his cloth before heading to the USA where he has titles at tour’s the two biggest Masters tournaments to defend? Traditionally, he has played in Dubai—an obvious choice given that he has a home and training base there. But with his contract there now completed, and his age edging deep into his 30s, here was more flexibility for revising the schedule.
And into the equation, too, came the question of rankings, for Nadal’s retirement against Cilic in Australia allowed Federer to come within touching distance of No1. The Swiss was cagey about his plans: Would he take on Nadal in the last week of February, when the Spaniard had final points to defend in Acapulco while the Swiss had few points to defend in Dubai? Or would he wing it through North America and go after No1 when Nadal faced the defence of many thousands of points through the clay season?
But the joy of February is the smorgasbord of different tournaments, and surfaces, and points on offer, in a 12-stop glut that caters for every taste.
For a start, the first 500s of the year come “not single spies, but in battalions”: four of them.
The ABN AMRO in Rotterdam headlines a brief indoor swing through the chilly courts of a wintry Europe. It is bookended by 250s in Sofia, Montpellier, and Marseille. American players can also go indoor without making the return Atlantic crossing before Indian Wells by opting for the debut playing of the New York Open.
For the many who revel in clay, the Golden Swing of Latin America is a welcome hiatus with the Rio 500 at its heart and surrounded by the glamorous heat and colour of Quito, Buenos Aires and Sao Paolo.
The third option is to stick with the hot, hard, outdoor courts that opened the year’s calendar, and the long-established Dubai 500 is now directly up against Acapulco, which moved from clay to hard courts a couple of year ago.
Choices, choices, choices… yet within those choices, there is also considerable consistency once players have made their picks.
A strong core—mostly European—enjoys the indoor option: David Goffin, Lucas Pouille, the returning Wawrinka, Jo-Wilfred Tsonga, Karen Khachanov, Gilles Muller, Tomas Berdych.
Those who have grown up on clay opt, not surprisingly, to make hay on their favourite surface: Dominic Thiem, Pablo Carreno Busta, Albert Ramos Vinolas, Fabio Fognini, Diego Schwartzman, and many more.
North Americans can stay on home territory and hard courts, both inside and out: Sam Querrey, Jack Sock, John Isner, Ryan Harrison, and Steve Johnson are playing one or both US tournaments, joined by big-hitting Kevin Anderson and Juan Martin del Potro.
So what of the choices of the two competing for the top spot?
For several years, Nadal headed to his beloved clay between Australia and Indian Wells, but last year—perhaps with a Federer-like eye on trimming his schedule—he went to the hard courts of Acapulco. It made sense: the conditions in Mexico provide a time-saving launch-pad to Palm Springs. It made sense this year, too, giving the Spanish hip time to heal. But with final points to defend, he opened the door to No1 to a Federer defending just second-round points in Dubai.
Here, though, is where that multiplicity of choices entered the equation. Federer decided he was fit enough to take the plunge into the February tour a little earlier, in Rotterdam. This, too, makes sense: It is only a few hours from his Swiss home, plays to his indoor strength—and means he can take the No1 ranking before Nadal has even arrived in Acapulco.
Should Federer fail in that campaign, there are still options—not least in his old haunt of Dubai. Or he could bide his time… But this is not the only storyline to track around the globe and into March.
Grigor Dimitrov pulled out of the defence of his home title in Sofia to nurse a shoulder injury, and is now displaced by Federer as top seed in Rotterdam. After finishing 2017 at a career-high No3 and with the biggest title of his career, the World Tour Finals, the Bulgarian has slipped back to No5 and behind one of his rivals through the coming months, Alexander Zverev.
Beyond the indoor swing, though, he has few points to defend—he won only five further matches until Queen’s—so perhaps steady pacing through February will boost his performance through the five points-rich Masters between now and Roland Garros.
Goffin put on a huge surge through the last weeks of 2017, played the Davis Cup final, and has piled on the events this season already: Hopman Cup, Kooyong, and after a second-round exit in Melbourne, back into Davis Cup. He is also packing his indoor swing, three tournaments back to back. Is this confidence, and a determination to build on his upward trajectory? Or is he in danger of burning the candle at both ends?
Wawrinka was away for six months until the Australian Open following double knee surgery, and turns 33 next month. Yet this late bloomer won his three Majors in the last four years, and looks determined to prove his fitness with a full indoor swing.
Can he match his final Indian Wells performance of last year, and will the clay see him pile on more points? Last summer, he ran out of steam after winning his home Geneva title and then a string of fine matches to reach the final at Roland Garros. If he moderates his schedule through the long clay stretch, he could gain traction through late summer and autumn—and perhaps find his way back inside the top five.
And then there are the men who have been missing in action for so long, the former Major champions and No1s.
Murray aims to be back for the grass—but by then his ranking will be outside the seedings for Wimbledon.
Djokovic confirmed to fans on social media that he had resorted to a ‘medical intervention’ on his elbow, and has subsequently posted a video of himself in the gym. Will he be fit in time for Indian Wells and, if so, can he defend his considerable clay points to arrest a further slide in the rankings from his current No13?
Kei Nishikori has been making a return via the Challenger circuit, winning last week in Dallas. He has battled for years with recurrent injuries, so will his long lay-off since last summer finally bring 100 percent fitness for the duration of a season?
And which of the young generation will reach Indian Wells and Miami in prime condition?
Kyle Edmund, Hyeon Chung, and Nick Kyrgios have all faced injuries since Australia, but each is poised at or close to career highs, ready to make a run up the ranks. Younger than all of them, Zverev stunned last year with two Masters and rise to No3. Can he maintain or exceed those heights? Meanwhile, Denis Shapovalov, Borna Coric, and especially Andrey Rublev, have all shown improved form in the last few months.
Or, in the end, will the veteran champions continue to hold sway? February may begin to answer at least a few of those questions.
Who plays where in February?
Sofia 250: Wawrinka, Adrian Mannarino, Muller, Philipp Kohlschreiber
Montpellier 250: Goffin, Pouille, Tsonga, Damir Dzumhur, Richard Gasquet, Rublev, David Ferrer, Yuichi Sugita
Rotterdam 500: Federer, Dimitrov, Zverev, Goffin, Wawrinka, Tsonga, Pouille, Tomas Berdych
New York [formerly Memphis] 250: Nishikori, Querrey, Anderson, Isner, Mannarino, Harrison
Marseille 250: Goffin, Wawrinka, Pouille, Tsonga, Berdych, Muller, Gilles Simon
Latin American clay
Quito 250: Carreno Busta, Ramos-Vinolas, Gael Monfils, Paolo Lorenzi
Buenos Aires 250: Cilic, Thiem, Carreno Busta, Ramos-Vinolas, Schwartzman, Fabio Fognini, Monfils
Rio 500: Cilic, Thiem, Carreno Busta, Ramos-Vinolas, Schwartzman, Fognini, Monfils
Sao Paulo 250: Ramos-Vinolas, Monfils, Fognini, Pablo Cuevas
Delray Beach 250: del Potro, Jack Sock, Anderson, Querrey, Milos Raonic, Kyrgios, Shapovalov, Chung
Dubai 500: Dimitrov, Pouille, Roberto Bautista Agut, Kohlschreiber, Dzumhur, Gasquet, Sugita
Acapulco 500: Nadal, Zverev, Cilic, Thiem, del Potro, Anderson, Querrey, Isner
February chronological schedule
Week 1, 2-4 Feb: Davis Cup
Week 2: 5-11 Feb: Sofia, Montpellier, Quito
Week 3: 12-18 Feb: Rotterdam 500, New York, Buenos Aires
Week 4: 19-25 Feb: Rio 500, Marseille, Delray Beach
Last days: 26 Feb-3 Mar: Dubai 500, Acapulco 500, Sao Paulo