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Friday, January 4, 2013

This week we went from no tennis to all tennis. It has been an immersive experience for those of us living on the U.S.'s east coast. We could get up and watch the men in Doha in the morning, the Hopman Cup from Perth during the afternoon, and finish the day with the women in Brisbane. Today I set my alarm for 4:00 A.M. to catch some more of the latter, where Serena Williams was set to face Victoria Azarenka in the year’s first official showdown on either tour. It was all for nought, however, as Vika pulled out with a toe injury—a “bad pedicure” was the apparent culprit—so she wouldn’t risk her status for the Australian Open. So far, 2013 is shaping up as the Year of the Precautionary Withdrawal.

Here’s a look at that subject, as well as four others from the season’s first week. I see that another time warning was given in Doha today, to Richard Gasquet. For now, my last word on the subject is: Let’s enforce the rules, with common sense as our guide.


How Much Precaution is Too Much Precaution?
Fans in Perth and Brisbane could have been excused for asking that question over the last few days. Along with Azarenka, John Isner and Maria Sharapova pulled out of the Hopman Cup and Brisbane, respectively, to keep niggling problems from turning into nagging ones before Melbourne. The unfortunate word "pedicure" aside, I don’t question their injuries, but  it's still a disappointing way to kick off the new season. (It also doesn’t help that both Rafael Nadal and now Jo-Wilfried Tsonga have already succumbed to illness and injury.) 

Top players today are quicker to think long term and pull the plug than they were 30 or 40 years ago. The tournaments right before the majors, like Brisbane and Perth, are most likely to feel the brunt. The Sydney event, held right before the Aussie Open, seems to be in decline for the same reason. Like anyone else, if I have to choose, I’d rather see Azarenka in Melbourne than in Brisbane. But like the disappointed fans in the building last night, and the rest of us watching around the world, I'd rather see her in both.


Fast Starts?
With the stars aligned in Brisbane, this was supposed to be a bigger week for the women, but the men have more than held their own in the interest department—and not just because they’ve been taking too long to serve. 

Most notably, earlier today we saw Nikolay Davydenko go woodshed on world No. 5 David Ferrer in the Doha semis. Davydenko loves this tournament; this will be his third trip to the final, and the medium-paced hard court is ideal for him. At 31, the former resident of the Top 5 is injury-free and seemingly in shape, and you have to think he’s going to make one more push, even if it's mainly for the cash, before he has to call it quits. Today he put on a proverbial clinic in aggressive baseline tennis, in the grand, on-the-rise tradition of Andre Agassi. Whatever happens to his legs as he ages, Kolya will always have those shots. Like Andre’s, they were drilled into him by an older family member; in Davydenko’s case, it was his brother who turned him into a human ball machine.

Also looking promising this week: 

Richard Gasquet, who toughed out two close sets against Daniel Brands in Doha today, and is now talking up his competitive abilities, of all things. He’ll play Davydenko tomorrow.

Grigor Dimitrov, who upset fellow Next Genner Milos Raonic in Brisbane and has made the semifinals. His new coaches in Sweden seem to be helping.

Kei Nishikori. A win over Dolgopolov put him in the Brisbane semis as well. He’s setting up as a sleeper quarterfinal pick in Melbourne. (And yes, picking someone outside the Top 10 to reach a Slam quarter counts as a bold prediction on the ATP side these days.)


Slow Out of the Gate
Can we call Ferrer’s 2 and 3 defeat to Davydenko a bad loss? I think most people who watched the match would say no—Davydenko, as Ferrer himself said afterward, was just too good. But I’m going to go the other way. No, there wasn’t much Ferrer could have done about it, but that’s the point, and the problem. Davydenko, the superior ball-striker, exposed Ferrer’s relative lack of pace and depth, and showed that you can only scramble and defend and grit your way through so many matches. Ferrer, who will go into the Aussie Open as the No. 4 seed, looked vulnerable to determined aggression. Maybe more worrying for his chances in Melbourne: He's going to play Auckland this week.

Milos Raonic and Tomas Berdych were two of my five “Players with Something to Prove” in 2013. After one week, they're still on the list. Raonic was bounced in straight sets in Brisbane by Dimitrov, and Berdych, who looked a full step behind every shot in Abu Dhabi last week, lost today to Roberto Bautista-Agut, a Spaniard better known to me for the excellence of his name, rather than his game.


Quote of the Week
We know what that is: Gael Monfils’ “I’m black, so I sweat a lot” is already a classic. But my favorite came from Andy Murray in Brisbane, where he was asked by the local media if he had any advice for Sam Stosur on handling home-country pressure: 

“My advice would be to forget about everyone else and be extremely selfish for the next three weeks and I am sure she has the game to go well. 

“You need to try to get into a little bubble. It can be difficult to manage your energy and your emotions, to concentrate on your practice and not think about anything else. I don’t read the papers or watch TV. I don’t see it as beneficial in any way. Sometimes if you read bad things it can be motivation, but if you read good things I don’t think it helps. If you are reading about people saying, ‘I think you can win the event or this is the year,’ it just does not help. She has never played her best in Australia but she had played very well elsewhere. There is a good chance she is putting too much pressure on herself. She is a great player.”

A thoughtful, insightful, and properly respectful answer—far more than the minimal mumble he had to give. Interesting that Murray says reading “good things” or predictions of victory “just does not help.” The most well-meaning pressure, apparently, is the worst of all.


Model Event?
With Doha and Brisbane in play, I haven’t had much of a chance to watch the Hopman Cup this year, but it remains a favorite viewing event of mine. It isn’t a hit-and-giggle exo (at least the singles matches aren't), but neither is it a deadly serious tournament. That’s a nice middle ground—the players are trying, but they’re also loose, which can lead to some great shotmaking. Plus, the fans in Perth show up, proving again that most sporting events are better when they're held in Australia.

This year the highlights have been Novak Djokovic and Ana Ivanovic playing mixed doubles—and dancing, and hi-jinking—for the Serbian team. Watching, I wondered what a Hopman Cup format would be like for Olympic tennis. Or, for those who believe the sport should have a higher-profile team event than Davis Cup or Fed Cup, I wondered whether it could serve as the basis for a new, every-two-year world team event played near the end of the season. Countries could face off in best-of-seven dual matches, with both genders represented—four singles matches (two men, two women), two doubles matches (one men’s team, one women’s) and a mixed match, potentially to decide it. 

Maybe it’s Hopman Cup, rather than Davis Cup, that’s the more undervalued team tennis event?


I'll be back early Saturday morning, EST time, with Racquet Reactions of the WTA final in Brisbane between Serena Williams and another resurgent Russian, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, followed by the ATP final from Doha between Davydenko and Gasquet.
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