Four 500s, 12 cities, three surfaces, all crammed into 29 days: it must be February
After Australian Open, before Indian Wells/Miami—Rotterdam is the first 500
January was one headlong leap into the new tennis season, but now the debut ATP Cup and the Australian Open are done and dusted. Time, in theory, for a breathing space to recharge the batteries, heal those niggles, and get the body-clock back where it belongs.
In practice, February heralds a fork in the road that takes lovers of the red stuff to South America for a brief clay swing, and the rest into the northern hemisphere and the hard courts. It is anything but a breathing space.
And even with the Davis Cup Qualifiers shunted into the first week of March, the shortest month in the calendar offers a smorgasbord of tournaments, 12 of them. And while there may be no Masters until March, there are events—and plenty of points—to meet almost every taste: clay, indoor hard, outdoor hard. Here, too, we meet the first 500s of the year, and not just a couple: four of them, all crammed into 29 days.
Heading to the sunny south
The four-tournament Golden Swing kicks off the short clay season with the Cordoba Open, one of two stops in Argentina: Buenos Aires follows a week later, and Rio and Santiago make up the quartet.
Lovers of clay are making the most of it, in draws packed by South Americans, Spaniards and Italians, and one of the rising stars on the tour, Chile’s Cristian Garin, was the first champion, in Cordoba. It takes him to a new career-high 25. Good to see, then, that Santiago is back on the circuit as a clutch of young Chileans begin to make a mark.
World No14 Diego Schwartzman, finalist in Cordoba, heads the seeds in Buenos Aires, and is joined by No2 seed Guido Pella. Each is trying to become the first Argentine to win this title since 2008—David Nalbandian. Borna Coric, seeded No4, did not make his hoped-for impact in his debut at the tournament, losing his opening match, and defending champion Marco Cecchinato fared little better, falling in the first round.
Come the first 500 event on clay, in Rio, and the highest ranked man to play the Golden Swing, No4 Dominic Thiem, breaks cover. He won the tournament in 2017. Also here are defending champion Laslo Djere, Matteo Berrettini, Fabio Fognini, Garin and Pella.
Going hot and hard—‘the big three’ ready for Indian Wells/Miami
As recently as 2014, this charismatic Acapulco tournament was also part of the clay swing, but now it is a favourite component in the outdoor hard-court tour, and one of the pair of big 500s that herald the biggest Masters push of the year, the double-header Indian Wells/Miami that fills March.
Little wonder, then, that ‘the big three’ launch their post-Australia, pre-Indian Wells campaign here and in Acapulco’s sibling in Dubai. Rafael Nadal has chosen the Mexican city, along with Alexander Zverev, defending champion Nick Kyrgios, Stan Wawrinka and Alex de Minaur.
In Dubai, the always-strong draw has attracted eight-time champion and local resident, Roger Federer, and four-time champion, world No1 and Australian Open champion, Novak Djokovic. Runner-up last year, Stefanos Tsitsipas and 2018 champion Roberto Bautista Agut are also in the mix with Gael Monfils, and Dan Evans.
Djokovic last won the Dubai title in 2013, but the last time that he and Federer both featured in the men’s draw was when they contested the 2015 title. Federer went on to win, and he then beat Tsitsipas in last year’s final to claim his 100th career title.
Before Acapulco and Dubai, Delray Beach will see Kyrgios along with a slew of North American players such as Milos Raonic, Taylor Fritz, and Reilly Opelka. The last of them began his campaign this week on the indoor hard courts of New York, where he won his first title last year. Meanwhile, two other former champions, No2 seed Raonic and the unseeded Kevin Anderson, both lost their openers, but top seed John Isner remains in contention, while Briton Kyle Edmund is in the quarter-finals after Cameron Norrie was knocked out in the second round.
Heading indoors—and the first 500 of the year
It is not only clay that has its faithful followers: Many men thrive on the hard, indoor courts that really come into their own in the closing stages of the calendar, and in particular the intense run after the Shanghai Masters draws a line under the Asian Swing. Once back indoors, the top men target the last Masters in Paris and qualification for the Nitto ATP Finals in London.
But February also offers points and prestige to indoor fans. Already, Monfils has won the opener in Montpellier, and French players get home advantage again with Marseille. And in between is that rare thing, an indoor 500, the first 500 of the season, and the last until Basel and Vienna at the end of October: The ABN AMRO in Rotterdam.
Rotterdam rolls, as young challengers open up draw in chase for big points
The first 500 always attracts plenty of attention, and this year, in the huge Ahoy arena in Rotterdam, it is no exception. Four of the top 10, and 10 of the top 20 players have signed up to the vibrant event in this windy but welcoming Dutch city. And the draw was topped by two of the most impressive of the new generation of stars, No5 Daniil Medvedev and No6 Tsitsipas.
Both men made huge impressions in 2019: Tsitsipas began with a semi run at the Australian Open, beating Federer, and ended the year with the ATP Finals title; Medvedev reached a tour leading nine finals and 59 match-wins, and made six back to back finals post-Wimbledon. In the process, he won two Masters and reached the final of the US Open.
However, they were among an early culling of seeds in Rotterdam. Perhaps the biggest upset came at the bottom of the draw, where Tsitsipas, having come close to the exit door against Hubert Hurkacz in Round 1, fell to Aljaz Bedene in straight sets.
No4 seed David Goffin was also beaten, by the #NextGenATP champion Jannik Sinner, the youngest player in the field at age 18. This teenage Italian has all the hallmarks of a future champion, boasting a calm and mature demeanour, powerful backhand and serve, and a willingness to mix things up tactically.
And considering that wild-card Sinner advanced to the second round courtesy of a withdrawal, he hit the ground running with aplomb, stormed to his first 500 quarter-finals, and could break into the top 60 for the first time if he beats his next opponent, the unseeded Pablo Carreno Busta, who beat No6 seed Bautista Agut.
These were not the only big names to fall. Another teen star, 19-year-old Felix Auger Aliassime, only just missed out on a seeding at his ranking of 21, and this exciting Canadian beat Grigor Dimitrov, who had in turn beaten No8 seed, 20-year-old Denis Shapovalov. So with no seeds left in the bottom half, there is certainly room for one of the teenagers to reach the final.
The top half in Rotterdam had its own share of upsets, as well, and in particular No1 seed Medvedev, who lost in short order to a revitalised Vasek Pospisil.
The big Canadian looked a fine prospect back in 2013 when he reached the semis of his home Masters in Montreal and went on to make the quarters at Wimbledon in 2015. But Pospisil was dogged by back and shoulder injuries, and eventually slid from a high of 25 to 248 until just four months ago. The answer, after long struggles, was back surgery, and the evidence so far has been very positive indeed.
Two Challenger titles, followed by three winning rubbers in the Davis Cup Finals, launched the Canadian on his upward trajectory this season with a final run in Montpellier, and now victory over Medvedev. Back inside the top 100, Pospisil will next play Filip Krajinovic for a place in the quarter-finals.
Elsewhere, Andrey Rublev continued his hot form—and he is another young player who has wrestled with injury to his back and then his wrist—to reach the quarters without dropping a set. The 22-year-old Russian is 17-1 since the Davis Cup Finals, and began 2020 with back-to-back titles in Doha and Adelaide.
There has been good news for the Briton in the draw, unseeded Evans, who continues to rise the ranks—at No33, he is the top-ranked British man. After playing a big part in GB’s ATP Cup campaign, he notched up a fine win in Rotterdam over No17 Karen Khachanov, from a set down, to reach the quarters and a new career-high of 31. Should he win his next match, he will be around No26, but he will have to beat either Gilles Simon or the defending champion Monfils, the No3 seed, to do so.
w/b 3 February Pune [champ Jiri Vesely], Montpellier [champ Monfils], Cordoba [champ Garin]
w/b 10 February Rotterdam 500, New York, Buenos Aires
w/b 17 February Rio 500, Marseille, Delray Beach
w/b 24 February Dubai 500, Acapulco 500, Sao Paulo