Rotterdam 2021: Headliner Nadal pulls out, but Medvedev, Tsitsipas, Zverev, Rublev bring star power

Andy Murray continues indoor return with tricky draw; Qualifier Norrie into same half

Daniil Medvedev
Daniil Medvedev (Photo: Marianne Bevis)

These have been hard times for tennis players, their support teams and fans.

Since Indian Wells was cancelled almost exactly a year ago due to the Covid-19 virus that was sweeping the world, nothing has been as it once was. Indeed there was nothing, full-stop, for nearly six months in the face of the pandemic.

And when the professional tour did begin to open up, it was cautiously, behind closed doors, and with the option for players to stay away rather than travel from country to country.

At last, some modest crowds were permitted, though as the virus took a grip again at the end of 2020, even the jamboree that would be the last ATP Finals in London after 10 years slammed shut those doors again.

And while Australia, which so successfully put a lid on the virus before anywhere else, brought back some normality, it was at the expense of anyone who wanted to cross its borders. For the players and their minimal support teams, that meant tight quarantine conditions for two weeks.

But Tennis Australia, and many fans, did successfully complete not just the first Major of the year but half a dozen other tournaments. However, spare a thought for the organisation behind such an undertaking. Much has been said about, and many thanks extended to, Australia’s tournament director, Craig Tiley. And rightly so.

But now, back to the grim reality of the indoor swing that usually packs out venues through Europe in February, a new set of tournament directors is facing the reality and uncertainty surrounding any sporting event.

Even the prestigious outdoor Dubai Duty Free Championships in a fortnight’s time will be played behind closed doors, and in Doha next week, it will be only Qatari fans who can access the live tennis, and then under very limited conditions.

And this week, the huge Rotterdam Ahoy arena, one of tennis’s biggest indoor venues, should have been rocking to the sound of the some of the sports’ biggest names in the first ATP500 of the year.

The ABN AMRO World Tennis Tournament has always drawn huge crowds, including its prestigious wheelchair tournament. Since its first playing in 1974, it has crowned such champions as Arthur Ashe, Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg, Stefan Edberg, Boris Becker, Roger Federer and Andy Murray.

And also among its titlists is former Wimbledon champion, Dutchman Richard Krajicek, who has been tournament director of the event since 2004. Never, though, can he have faced such a challenging week in Rotterdam.

Playing with no crowds was just the first disappointment to overcome this year, as player after player scheduled to boost the viewing figures pulled out.

The biggest coup was the signing of Rafael Nadal: The Spaniard has only twice in his long career diverted to Rotterdam, and not at all since reaching the final in 2009. But then came the news days that the back problem that flared up in Australia would prevent him from taking part.

A blow, no doubt, especially when followed by the withdrawal of four more top-15 players, including defending champion Gael Monfils, and the charismatic young Canadian Denis Shapovalov.

More were to come: No16 Pablo Carreno Busta, No24 Casper Ruud, No28 Dan Evans, and two more young stars in the shape of No33 Taylor Fritz and No34 Jannick Sinner.

Yet even with so many last-minute adjustments, Rotterdam will be blessed with a top-flight line-up, and what is more, its top seed, No3 Daniil Medvedev, could rise to a new career-high of No2 with a deep run on the dusky green courts of the Ahoy.

Once Nadal pulled out, the Russian two-time Major finalist and the most prolific winner of the last six months need only reach the final to score a very significant milestone. He would become the first player outside the ‘Big Four’ of Federer, Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray to hold a top-two spot since Lleyton Hewitt in 2005. And bearing in mind that he has won 20 of his past 21 matches, 12 of them against top-10 opponents, he will be favourite to do just that.

However, Medvedev is one of four top-eight men who will have their eyes set on this title: No2 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas, who could overtake Federer’s No5 ranking by reaching the quarters, No3 seed Alexander Zverev and No4 seed Andrey Rublev.

It so happens that Medvedev will have to focus hard from the first match, where he meets Dusan Lajovic, who is up to No27 this week. The No26-ranked Borna Coric is a dangerous second opponent, and at the quarter stage, aside from No7 seed Felix Auger-Aliassime, he finds three tough non-seeds in Kei Nishikori, Alex de Minaur and John Millman. And to reach the necessary final stage, the highest opposition is Zverev or Roberto Bautista Agut—though the Spaniard will have to hot-foot it from the South of France and recover from a grueling three-set final loss against David Goffin in Montpellier.

Zverev entered Rotterdam with a wild card, but he is not the only high-profile man to get one: Former world No1 and champion in Rotterdam, Murray, is also in the field, where he has drawn another wild card, the popular Dutchman Robin Haase—certainly not an easy opener for the Briton who looked less than his best in his first-round exit in Montpellier.

If Murray makes it through to the second round, he is likely to be severely tested by Rublev, who has impressed this year with an 8-1 winning record, reaching the quarters in Australia before losing to compatriot Medvedev.

Also in the Briton’s half are, in order, Montpellier champion David Goffin, then Stan Wawrinka, or Tsitsipas.

Murray is sure to spot another name in this half, the first opponent for Tsitsipas: Egor Gerasimov beat Murray in that Montpellier opener on his way to the semis. The Briton will also spot fellow Briton Cameron Norrie, who beat Andreas Seppi, 6-3, 6-2, to take one of the four qualifying spots in the draw. Norrie will open against Nikoloz Basilashvili.

But along with the Rotterdam tournament director, spare one more thought for Murray. He was all set to launch 2021 with a trip to Australia, where he hoped to continue the fight back from repeated hip surgery and assorted other injury problems—only to pick up a Covid infection just too late to make the schedule.

His disappointment, talking after the event, was writ large:

“I watched very little [of the Australian Open], I wanted to be there and it was a struggle… I stopped following all the tennis players I follow on social media because I just really didn’t want to see it.”

Playing behind closed doors in the echoing emptiness of the Ahoy will be far from ideal for lifting the spirits—but against all the odds, there will nevertheless be tennis.

Monday schedule in Rotterdam [one hour ahead of UK]

11am Lajovic and Wawrinka vs Karen Khachanov and Rublev

1pm Basilashvili vs Norrie

2.30pm Nishikori vs Auger-Aliassime

7.30pm Haase vs Murray, f/b Marton Fucsovics vs Reilly Opelka

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