Tennis springs into March: Rotterdam, Doha, Dubai, Acapulco headline 18 events in a month
Murray loses first main-tour match, but readies for Rotterdam; Federer returns after 13-month absence
Tennis Australia pulled off what seemed a near-impossible feat that began with two weeks of tight quarantine, was followed by seven ATP/WTA tournaments in the first week of February, and concluded with a full Grand Slam schedule of singles, doubles and wheelchair tennis.
Even now, Australia has not quite gone out in a blaze of glory, as the women’s tour has headed to Adelaide for a high-quality 500 tournament that features no fewer than six top-20 players among its 28-woman draw.
But most players now have Melbourne in their rear-view mirror as the tours head in three directions, headlined by five ATP/WTA 500s and a WTA 1,000.
The cool European indoor swing is always a packed affair, and this year, a little later than usual, the ATP500 in Rotterdam, one of the most prestigious events in the calendar, is the stand-out amongst 250s in Montpellier, Marseille and, as a one-off supplementary event in this coronavirus-interrupted year, Singapore.
The hard and rather hotter outdoor swing focuses initially on the Middle East, and usually heralds the biggest Masters of the year in Indian Wells. That was the first casualty of Covid-19 last year, and has been postponed again this March. However, it has left room for the later-than-usual Dubai and Doha double headers for men and women, before both tours head to Mexico (to Acapulco and Monterrey respectively).
The third strand is the option for clay-court fans, for while the Rio 500 has been postponed this spring, there is still Latin American action in Cordoba, Buenos Aires and Santiago.
March then wraps up in its familiar way with the biggest non-Major of the years in Miami.
In such a packed month, it is hard to pick out the highlights, but here are a few.
Andy Murray faces uphill battle in Rotterdam
The former world No1 Andy Murray was forced to make his opening foray into 2021 at the Biella Challenger in Italy after testing positive for the coronavirus before his planned trip to Australia.
He fitted in just six matches in late 2020 as he continued his return from major hip surgery in 2019. Reaching the final in Biella, then, got some valuable court-time under his belt, and he picked up wild cards both to this week’s Montpellier and next week’s Rotterdam.
However, both tournaments have attracted strong fields, with the 250 in Montpellier featuring two men who have already won titles this year, Jannik Sinner and Hubert Hurkacz. Topping the draw, too, is the man who reduced Murray to tears in the Australian Open two years ago, No11 Roberto Bautista Agut. Not that the Briton will face any of them after losing to Egor Gerasimov. The big-serving Belarusian threw into sharp relief the reduced speed and stamina of Murray after a gruelling 71-minute tie break, 7-6(8), and went on to reach the second round, 6-1.
Murray knows, too, that Rotterdam raises the stakes still higher in a field almost worthy of a Masters. Six of the top 10 head to what will be the empty cavern of the Ahoy Arena, including No2 Rafael Nadal, No3 Daniil Medvedev, and Nos 6-8 Stefanos Tsitsipas, Alexander Zverev and Andrey Rublev.
Even beyond the top 10, this is a formidable draw that includes Denis Shapovalov, Stan Wawrinka, Felix Auger-Aliassime, and Sinner. Whatever the draw, Murray will face an uphill battle.
Federer returns at last
It is over a year since Roger Federer bowed out of the 2020 Australian Open, played an exhibition event in South Africa, and then underwent knee surgery—and a second surgery in the midst of the tour’s coronavirus lock-down.
He opted out of last month’s challenging trip to Australia to give himself a little more time to work on fitness, and has chosen the less arduous option of beginning his comeback closer to home.
The Swiss has a training base in Dubai, and so there is a logic to his joining the Doha draw rather than heading to the cold indoors of Rotterdam. Even so, the Qatar Open 250 offers considerable opposition, as other players use the same hot hard-court logic: nine of the top 20 will join him, including world No4 Dominic Thiem, Rublev, Shapovalov, Gael Monfils and Bautista Agut. And it will be a similar picture for the Dubai 500—perhaps even tougher.
Federer has not played Doha since 2012, and is a three-time champion, but nine years on, he is heading to his 40th birthday as well as returning from an unprecedented break in his schedule. Just how fit he is, and how he measures up to the, by-and-large, much younger competition will be watched very keenly.
Doha-Dubai dazzle for women
With the re-grading of the WTA’s calendar to align more closely with the ATP, the same two venues of Doha and Dubai combine in a 500/1000 showcase of women’s tennis.
World No1 Ash Barty, who opted out of the tennis schedule following Doha last year, is making up for lost time at the start of 2021. After winning the Yarra Valley Classic, she reached the quarters at the Australian Open, but fell foul of Danielle Collins in her first match at the Adelaide 500 this week. She does now have both Doha and Dubai on her itinerary, as do fellow Adelaide players, Belinda Bencic and French Open champion Iga Swiatek, both of whom are in the Adelaide quarters.
Also on the big Doha/Dubai start lists at the moment are No5 Elina Svitolina, who has enjoyed a lot of success in the Middle East swing, No6 Karolina Pliskova, the in-form defending Doha champion Aryna Sabalenka, who has already won the title in Abu Dhabi this season, Petra Kvitova and Jennifer Brady, who made such an impression in reaching her first Major final in Melbourne.
World No3 Simona Halep will join the competition in Dubai as defending champion, however Australian Open champion Naomi Osaka, along with Serena Williams, appear to be taking things more carefully: Miami may be their first appearance since Melbourne unless they take up wild cards along the way.
Adelaide International: WTA500
Singapore Open: ATP250
Cordoba Open: ATP250
W/b 1 March
Qatar Open Doha: WTA500
Buenos Aires: ATP250
W/b 8 March
Dubai Duty Free: WTA1000
Qatar Open Doha: ATP250
Open 13 Provence, Marseille: ATP250
Santiago, Chile: ATP250
W/b 14 March
St Petersburg: WTA500
Dubai Duty Free: ATP500
W/b 24 March
Miami Open: WTA/ATP1000