In recent years ESPN has taken it upon itself to break the college-football season into specific weeks. Each is given it own (entirely contrived) name, like “Separation Saturday." Apparently the network felt that the sport, which borders on a religion in certain parts of the country, needed just a little more hype.
If we were to do the same for tennis, what would we call this part of the season? How about “Appearance Fee February”? It has a certain ring, no doubt about it. In between the Aussie Open and the mandatory events at Indian Wells and Key Biscayne lies a scattered and chaotic landscape filled with mainly forgettable events in places that you wouldn’t exactly call “destination cities”—Memphis in winter, anyone? Nadal, Davydenko, Ferrer, and Berdych certainly didn’t prolong their visits to the port of Rotterdam this year.
The crown jewels of this circuit are Doha and Dubai. They treat the players royally, as we know, and aren’t content to bring in just one marquee name. They want the whole tour to experience a “7-star hotel” (six-star is generally good enough for me, thanks, but I’m just simple person), and they’ve been fielding some of the strongest draws outside the majors and Masters events. There’s been a lot of talk about the politics involved in bringing women and Jewish players to the Saudi peninsula, but from a basic fan perspective these events often have a hollow feel. The local governments and sponsors shower the players with prize money and recoup their losses in publicity, but that doesn’t mean much excitement is generated for the sport of tennis. We’ll see what the energy is like in Doha on the Tennis Channel this weekend.
The Qatar Total Open in Doha had a loaded draw at the start of the week: Ivanovic, Venus Williams, Sharapova, Kuznetsova, Jankovic, Mauresmo, Chakvetadze, Peer were all there. Typical of this time of year, only two of those are left standing as we reach the quarterfinals this weekend—Sharapova and Jankovic. That’s a disappointment considering the event is on U.S. television. Still, there are potential bright spots for the cognoscenti. Caroline Wozniacki remains, Li Na is in mid-comeback, and I’ve liked Radwanska’s game—she’s alive courtesy of Ivanovic’s withdrawal with an ankle injury.
The other event on Saturday and Sunday is the venerable San Jose tournament, which used to be run and relentlessly hyped all week by tournament director/commentator Barry MacKay. These days it's a sort of welfare event for American players—Fish, Ginepri, Isner, Jesse Levine, this is your time to shine! Tonight Andy Roddick plays Kei Nishikori, who’s fresh off a final-round win over James Blake in Delray. I watched the first two sets of that match and enjoyed Nishikori’s game, particularly his flicky forehand—he can really create with that thing. But I was stunned when I found out later that he’d won the third set. I’m hesitant to say this is another sign of Blake’s continued shakiness; it seems like more of an aberration than a signal of anything. But he was strangely testy and irritable right from the start of the match. He may have felt like he had nothing to gain from beating a qualifier and couldn’t get himself into the focused mindset that he’s brought to many finals in the past.
Last year, Blake's loss in the final in Delray presaged a months-long slump. But for most guys the beauty of February is that by summer, after a few Masters and a couple majors, no one will care or even remember what happened then. It’s a sleepy, eccentric part of the year, and one that would be cut entirely from any sane pro schedule. But sleepy, eccentric, and mainly forgettable are not the worst things in the world—no sport that I follow, outside of the NFL, matters all year long. And when else would I get to see Kei Nishikori or Caroline Wozniacki crack a forehand? So I'll enjoy February while it lasts—but no longer.