by Pete Bodo
Before we get down to the nitty-gritty of the ATP draw for the Indian Wells Masters 1000 tournament (I'll post on that later, and tomorrow I'll tackle the WTA template in an early post), has anyone else noticed that over the past year or two it seems that the once "dead zone" between the end of the Australian Open and the start of Indian Wells has suddenly become a legitimate transitional period?
That is, those tournaments in San Jose, Memphis, Buenos Aires, Acapulco, Rotterdam, Dubai, etc. seem to add up to a whole that's greater than a sum of the parts. There's a greater sense of continuity now between the Aussie Open and the two big U.S. combined events that begin tomorrow in the California desert.
In years past, my main reaction at this time of year was to grouse about what a shame it is to have things backward — the first major of the year ought to be at the end of a road, not the beginning. Now, though, it seems like we have the best of both worlds.
The year begins almost immediately with a commanding event, which is rarely acknowledged for one of its greatest contributions. It pulls fans into tennis right off the bat in the new year, and that's an enormous plus for the sport. Then we then get a little break as the tournaments once again build gradually toward tennis's version of March madness. Call it March gladness: all the big dogs and dogettes are going to be plenty busy over the next few weeks, and right about now we're all itching to see them back in the same place darting ominous looks at each other.
I see a number of reasons for why the winter calendar seems smoother and more sensible than it has in the past (I must say, though, that WTA hasn't been nearly as good at making this happen as has the ATP). Start with our good fortune in having a Big Four (Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Andy Murray).
Djokovic disappeared with his Australian Open title and did not re-appear again until last week in Dubai. Nadal also left the grid, and he has yet to return. If tennis were all about the Djokovic-Nadal rivalry, those sabbaticals would be devastating. Tennis almost always has had more than two or even three stars; the big difference now is that today's luminaries are marketable and credible to a wide audience.
Incidentally, do those of you who really believe that the work load on today's pros is onerous realize that Djokovic has played exactly 11 competitive matches in over three months, or a quarter of a year? In that same period, Nadal has played just 13?
Anyway, the fact the Roger Federer — still the best known and most beloved of the Big Four — has stepped up and played 21 matches has helped keep tennis in the limelight, and not just among dyed-in-the-wool tennis fans. The top players in general do a pretty good job in spreading the wealth, but in the past they've often had to do it with smoke and mirrors, trying to convince promoters, sports fans, and media that guys who haven't won majors, or can't compete with those who have on a regular basis (the way, say, still-Slamless Murray does), are stars.
With No. 3 and match-greedy Federer you don't need to convince nobody about nothin'. The guy is the all-time singles Grand Slam champion. End of story. The simple fact of Federer's availability at this time of year has done a lot to drive this new found sense of continuity.
The emergence of Dubai as table-setting prelude to March Gladness has also helped drive this process. Although Dubai is merely an ATP 500 (as opposed to a Masters 1000), all that desert oil money ensures an outstanding field (only Nadal and David Ferrer were absent this year from among the top 10). Throw in the increasingly popular Madison Square Garden exhibition and Tennis Night in America, and now you've expanded this month-long focus on quality tennis to six weeks, which represents a 50 percent increase over the past. It also shrinks that once dead zone considerably.
Unpredictable story lines that can vanish as quickly as they appear have also helped. Milos Raonic, John Isner, Ryan Harrison — all of them are persons of interest during the North American hard-court season, and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is very popular in western Europe.
I've got to admit that the early clay-court season in Latin America doesn't seem terribly relevant to me, except as it might help the rankings of certain clay-court players who shall remain nameless, but benefit enormously from the absence of Nadal. But let's face it, having Nico Almagro or David Ferrer occupied elsewhere must leave many hard-court performers counting their blessings. See, there's a lot to be glad about in March.