Photo by QTF/Paul Zimmer via the ATP
Happy New Year! 2012 begins today, as does the new tennis season. I love the new year’s holiday for the optimistic, clean slate feeling it brings, whether we’re talking the arbitrary end to holiday indulgences (did I really need to finish that second bottle of champagne last night?) or the feeling of fresh possibilities for our favorite tennis players (Roger’s almost two years without a Major title, wha???). The opening week of the tennis year is representative of the rest of the crazy tennis schedule, as the men’s and women’s tours touch down not only in Australia, home of the upcoming Major, but in locales as varied as Chennai, India and Doha, Qatar. It’s like we get three weeks break and then SPLAT! we’re scrubbing tennis from our windshields and already feeling disoriented. Here’s my attempt to chart the course.
Preseason presentiments? The funny thing is that the 2012 tennis season started before 2011 was officially over, with the cash-stravaganza exhibition tournament in Abu Dhabi. It was like the World Tour Finals in reverse. Instead of trouncing the competition, Roger Federer lost badly to major rivals Novak Djokovic in the semifinals – it was a 6-2, 6-1, 44 minute bloodbath, to be precise – and to Rafael Nadal in the consolation match. Though Rafa, who reportedly still has a sore shoulder, steamrolled Rog 6-1, 7-5 in the fight for third place, the Spaniard suffered a lopsided 2-6, 3-6 semifinal loss to compatriot David Ferrer. Yeah, it’s no use making sense of it, so let’s just rack it up to funky, pre-season exo-mojo. Because if we take these results seriously, I may as well write a post called “KING NOLE REIGNS IN 2012!” and take a year long vacation from tennis blogging. Let’s just say that Djokovic seems confident:
“Usually at this stage, you are trying to find your speed on the court, agility, just dynamics of every stroke,” Djokovic said (via tennis.com). “But I found it already, to be honest, right away after the first match. . .It’s a great way for me to prepare for Melbourne.”
The question is – who’s already quaking in their Nikes?
The Game Changer – London 2012 The ATP is playing in Brisbane, Australia; Chennai, India; and Doha, Qatar this week. The women join the guys in Brisbane and also play in Auckland. But let’s not forget the always entertaining Hopman Cup, a kind of Davis/Fed cup combo that pushes mixed doubles into the spotlight. With mixed becoming a medal sport at this year’s London Olympics, the Hopman Cup event feels less like a fun exhibition and more like a testing ground for Olympic glory. Looking at the line-up, it’s easy to imagine the Czech team of Berdych/Kvitova sweeping up both this week’s Cup and this summer’s mixed doubles gold medal,
The Olympics makes this season particularly important and exciting for the tennis world. All of the top players crave a medal, and Roger Federer, in particular, seems to obsess over it more than anyone. The 2012 Olympics has long been a mile marker in Federer’s career. Ever since Shanghai – and his late-twenties – he’s spoken of the upcoming Games as a kind of final frontier before his retirement from tour. Now that it’s upon us, it seems improbable that Fed won’t turn up in Rio, but there’s no doubt that this year is Roger’s last, best chance to grasp the one prize that continues to frustrate and tantalize him: the singles gold medal. Can we stand it, Fed fans?
Back to the here and now: Brisbane’s the mixed tournament this week, with Andy Murray, and Gilles Simon (really?) the top seeds in the men’s draw, which also features rising stars Dolgopolov, Tomic and Nishikori. The field is particularly strong on the women’s side, with US Open Champ/Great Aussie Hope Sam Stosur topping a women’s field that includes Serena Williams, Kim Clijsters, Jelena Jankovic, Francesca Schiavone, Andrea Petkovic and Ana Ivanovic. As I type, Serena’s serving for her first win of the season. Assuming continued success and perhaps more crazy-talk this season from the Big S: “I definitely have a few loose chips upstairs,” she admitted last night on Twitter.
The Qatar ExxonMobil Open, in Doha, is the splashiest tournament of the week, with defending champ Roger Federer and World No. 2 Rafael Nadal heading up the draw. Frenchmen Gael Monfils (Rafa’s half) and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (yet again in Fed’s half) are the seeded semifinal opponents. In a small twist of deja vu, Fed will play Nikolay Davydenko in the first round, which was last year’s final match-up.
It’s tempting to assume that Roger and Rafa will meet in this year’s final, the result then signalling how their rivalry will unfold for the rest of the season. But with Nadal perhaps still nursing that shoulder injury and Roger a bit off top-form (I saw the above photo of a bulging blemish on the side of his face last week, which I take to be a sign of a weakened immune system – did I mention that I’m
a medial professional?) this pre-tournament promo may be the only time these two face each other over the net this week:
Roger’s take on playing Rafa by candlelight (via the ATP):
“It was a very special atmosphere playing in the amphitheatre with all the candles lit up. It was a mixture of dramatic, romantic and Arabian Nights. It felt very much alive. I really enjoyed it.”
In other, less splashy tournaments, Sabine Lisicki, Sveta Kuznetsova and Flavia Pennetta head up the women’s field in Auckland and defending champ Stanislas Wawrinka, Janko Tipsareic and Milos Raonic star in Chennai, India.
The Big Story
Thanks, Andy Murray, for providing us with the first big story of 2012, revealed via Facebook on New Year’s Eve:
“Very happy to announce that Ivan Lendl is my new full time coach. His impact on the game is unquestionable and he brings experience and knowledge that few others have, particularly in major tournaments. Happy New Year”
After going more than a season without a serious full-time coach, and as everyone in the world has pointed out, failing to score his first Major title, Andy Murray’s decided to pair up with eight-time major Champ and first time major coach Ivan Lendl. It’s an intriguing partnership, given the Scot’s famous outbursts towards his box (can’t imagine the flinty Ivan putting up with that) and Lendl’s inversely proportioned experience levels as elite player/tennis coach. I think the obvious parallel of Murray’s and Lendl’s early disappointments in Major finals (Andy’s lost his first three, Lendl failed in his first four attempts) makes this relationship particularly interesting. It sounds like Andy hasn’t overlooked this commonality (via the ATP):
“I liked what he said and how he felt about my game. I think he has obviously got a lot of experience. I also think he has been through a lot of the same things that I have been through, so I am sure he can help me mentally with certain things. And also just his eye for the game; he obviously understands tennis very well.”
Tony Roache, who coached Lendl for eight years before working with the likes of Lleyton Hewitt and Roger Federer, thinks that Murray’s made the right move in hiring his former charge (via The Telegraph):
“Being the student of the game that he (Lendl) is, being such a switched-on and motivated guy, the way he worked on his game as a player, the way he prepared himself, all of that knowledge and experience is in Andy’s corner now.
“That’s not to say Andy hasn’t been working his backside off already and putting in the hard yards but I think Ivan is going to add another dimension.“
It’s a big move for Andy, and perhaps a bit riskier than Roache is letting on. Hiring a legend like Lendl, instead of a more road-tested coach like say, Darren Cahill or Tony Roache, is as much a statement as it is a personnel decision. It’s like when Andy Roddick signed on with Coach Jimbo – or when a cancer patient ditches the chemo for a controversial alternative therapy – it’s both daring and a bit desperate. But Murray swears he knows what he’s getting into (via ATP):
“The best coaches don’t always make the best players and the best players don’t make the best coaches. So I think that is something that I am sure will be a challenge for Ivan and he seemed quite excited by that as well. He has never coached before and he was saying that he was willing to learn. I am looking forward to it.”
What do you think of Andy Murray’s move? And what’s your story to watch out for in 2012?