Different Everything

Tuesday, February 26, 2013 /by

Tennis is not only the fastest moving sport, it’s also the one that moves most effectively on multiple fronts. This is something that critics who grumble about the lack of an off-season sometimes forget. You take a week’s vacation, far from newspapers and electronic devices (as I just did, sojourning in Guatemala) and you return to—literally—a different sport. Different match-ups. Different conditions. Different surfaces. Different everything.

When I left New York about a week ago, the men were still slugging it out in Memphis, Marseille, and Buenos Aires. When I returned, they were starting over in Acapulco, Dubai, and Delray Beach. All in all, this week is an interesting comment on the sheer diversity of tennis these days: We have a clay-court event that attracts South Americans in Mexico, a lucrative desert shoot-out on hard courts among mostly Europeans in the Middle East, and a hard-court bone thrown toward Americans and up-and-down competitors in Florida. It’s an ATP triple play.

So let’s take a quick look at these events, starting with the most significant:

Dubai: With the once robust tennis market seemingly in decline in the U.S., and Europeans more or less treading familiar water, the Middle East has really filled a void—especially in the commercial dimension. This year’s event in Doha failed to attract—“buy” or even “afford” might be better words—the typical, outstanding ATP field of years past (Richard Gasquet won, but it wasn’t quite the surprise it may appear because he was seeded second, behind David Ferrer). But Dubai ponied up once again.

The city-state put together an outstanding field to go along with its ATP 500 status (Doha is one rung down, at the entry level as an ATP 250). And keep an eye out for this guy who they say is pretty good, even though he’s played just one tournament so far this year—Novak Djokovic.

The “dream final” would have top-seeded Djokovic slugging it out with Roger Federer, who was upset in his last tournament (Rotterdam) by Julien Benneteau. Automatically, one of the more tantalizing questions is, “Will Federer make the final?” The all-time Grand Slam singles champion added fuel to that fire yesterday when he dropped the first set of his match with wild card Malek Jaziri, the Tunisian ranked No. 128.

That hiccup may have been a sign that this will be one of those events that bucks the form chart. Fourth seed Juan Martin del Potro also struggled mightily, saving three match points before he subdued Marcos Baghdatis (as tough a first-round opponent as you can ask) in a third-set tiebreaker, while No. 5 seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga fared even worse. He was hit off the court by his volatile, left-handed countryman, Michael Llodra.

The upset by Llodra suggests that Dubai’s courts are quick and favor aggressive, attacking play (hey, even Dmitry Tursunov won a match). That will work to Federer’s advantage, but it also enhances the risk attached to his potential semifinal with Tomas Berdych.

Should form hold, Djokovic has a comparable obstacle in del Potro, so what you have here is a nicely balanced event, with no Rafael Nadal or Andy Murray to throw a monkey wrench into the works. It shapes up as a nice week for Federer to make a statement for the umpteenth time.

Acapulco: You have to feel for David Ferrer. The Spaniard is the top seed in this Mexican seaside tournament, one notch above…Nadal. In case your memory fails you, Nadal has won seven French Opens, along with 21 Masters titles. Ferrer, who’s 30, has just one Masters crown. A friend of Rafa’s, Ferrer is more than familiar with the meaning and applications of the word, “respect,” and another one closely related to it, “deference.”

I’m tempted to suggest that Ferrer is bound to lose before the final, just to avoid the surreal experience of being the on-paper favorite against the “King of Clay.” But one of the more convincing rebuttals to that scenario is that there’s nobody on Ferrer’s side of the draw who has even a remote chance of beating him—unless tricky David Nalbandian or Stanislas Wawrinka can find a way to pull it off in the semifinals.

Given that Nadal’s half is loaded with qualifiers and wild cards, he’s likely to face another buddy in the semis, Nicolas Almagro—who is 0-8 against Rafa lifetime. I have a feeling we’ll be getting lots of updates on the state of Nadal’s knees for lack of more momentous news this week.

Delray Beach: It wasn’t so long ago that an American fan could console him or herself with the belief that a James Blake, a Mardy Fish, an Andy Roddick, or a John Isner is likely to win this event. But two of those four stalwarts (Fish and Roddick) aren’t even playing, and Blake needed a wild card just to get into the draw. He offered little resistance in a first-round pairing with Ernests Gulbis, losing 6-1, 6-4.

That leaves Isner, who happens to be the top seed. But I wouldn’t pencil him into the winner’s circle just yet, because this tournament could become a lively little shoot-out. Just look at the line-up: Haas, Nishikori, Anderson, Dolgopolov, Istomin, Malisse … okay, these names aren’t generally up in lights. But without a del Potro or Berdych—or even a Janko Tisparevic—to play marshal, this could get a little western.

This is the only tournament of the week where a national from the host nation has a shot at winning. (I’m sorry, but while Dubai might be Federer’s second home, I just can’t think of him as a local boy). In fact, the “dream final” for Americans could very well come to pass: Top-seeded Isner against third-seeded Sam Querrey, who’s in the opposite, lower half of the draw.

Thank the gods for small blessings.

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