Freaky February

Monday, February 11, 2013 /by

No sooner did the first Grand Slam event of the year end than tennis fans worldwide bemoaned the lack of high-grade tournaments in the the foreseeable future. Oh, there’s a Rotterdam here, a Rafael Nadal comeback in Vina del Mar there. But this is the “who cares?” month. Freaky February. The next Slam isn’t until late May, and the next Masters doesn’t begin until the second week of March.

Oh, woe is we. T.S. Eliot had it all wrong: February is the cruelest month.

The problem here isn’t the length of the break from big-time tennis, for it’s really only a month. Thirty slow days in the fall is no big deal—not after the loaded spring and summer slate of Masters, Premier Mandatories, and Grand Slam events. But a ho-hum month at this point is frustrating. Tennis starts with a bang in Australia, with barely any run-up, and then we’re left twisting in the wind for too long. It’s like the Australian Open was a big tease.

But while a lot of fans are drumming their fingers on the desk or coffee table these days, the tournaments that take place between the trophy presentation in Melbourne and the first matches called in Indian Wells give the rank-and-file ATP and WTA pros a chance to earn valuable computer points and money. It’s also a time when players can atone for false starts when the starter’s gun went off down at the antipodes.

Can you imagine the pressure on a pro ranked between No. 15 and No. 25 if he or she had a bad draw, a bad day, or just plain bad karma at the Australian Open—and wouldn’t have the chance to play again until Roland Garros? Or even Indian Wells? Roger Federer may not need to rediscover some missing ingredient in his game on even an intermittent basis, but a Marin Cilic or a Sabine Lisicki sure does. And that’s what these smaller events—like Pattaya City, Montpellier, and Zagreb—allow enable players to do, usually without the fear that just when they’re regaining traction, a Novak Djokovic or Victoria Azarenka will come along and squash them like they were bugs in the second or third round.

In fact, the high performers in February often are players bouncing back from an unsatisfying start to the year. In that sense, the Australian Open is a nice marker, the end of the first chapter of the season, after which a player can take a deep breath, look around, and take stock. So let’s look at some of the redemption seekers who’ve done well these past few weeks:

Marin Cilic: It sometimes seems like this lean, 6’6” power baseliner has been on the cusp of a major breakthrough since, well, forever. He appears to belong up there in the Top 10 with similarly big, physical guys like Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Tomas Berdych, and Juan Martin del Potro. But Cilic has a knack for fading when it really counts, in big matches and also in terms of the ebb and flow of his career.

Cilic started the year ranked No. 15, but won just three matches through January—and only one of those wins was over a guy inside the Top 100. A third-round loss to No. 23 Andreas Seppi at the Australian Open was yet another disappointment, but Cilic responded by avenging himself against the Italian in Davis Cup—and he backed that up last week with a win on his de facto home court in Zagreb. It’s always tough to win before your own people, so bagging the title ought to give Cilic a welcome boost of confidence.

Mona Barthel: Ranked a lowly No. 32, the German had an interesting match-up in the final of the Paris Indoors. Neither Barthel nor her rival opponent, Sara Errani, won a match at the Australian Open. Barthel ultimately put the hammer down on Errani, 7-5, 7-6 (4), to re-establish herself as a potential Top 10—or better—performer despite a slow start.

If you take the first-round disappointment at the Australian Open out of the picture, Barthel has been to a semi, a final, and the trophy podium in the three other events she’s played this season. She’s a ‘young’ 22, having remained in school longer than most comparably gifted youngsters, and is still relatively new to the tour with a varied, artful game.

The elder Errani, by contrast, is struggling—but bound to take some comfort from making the final after winning just three matches in three events she played Down Under.

Maria Kirilenko: Barely inside the Top 30 at No. 28 in January a year ago, Kirilenko had a career year and set forth in 2013 knocking on the door of the Top 10 (at No. 13). She stalled in Australia, and while she suffered losses to quality players (Errani in the second round at Sydney, Serena Williams in the fourth round at Melbourne), they weren’t quality losses; Kirilenko won a grand total of four games in those two matches.

Kirilenko won back some of the ground she lost with a win at Pattaya City, where she survived Lisicki in a match of wild swings of momentum that finally ended after three hours and 14 minutes, when Kirilenko reeled off 11 of the last 12 points to win it in a third-set tiebreaker.

Lisicki, now No. 40, really needed a bounce-back week as well, having won just one match before Pattaya City.

Richard Gasquet: Give the talented but often puzzling 26-year-old Frenchman credit; his win at Montpellier wasn’t as much of a sorely-needed confidence builder as an affirmation that he’s serious about his mid-career makeover, and has come to grips with the mandate to make hay while the sun shines. In that regard, he’s a different case from the other players discussed here. I’m including him, though, because in the big picture, he needs to assert himself in these slower weeks to build a base as a Grand Slam contender.

Gasquet had an excellent 2012, but he’s never had week-in, week-out staying power—until now. Maybe. With Gasquet, you definitely follow the old saw: Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me...

Gasquet won in the first week of ATP play at Doha, and had an excellent Australian Open, surviving to the fourth round, where he was unlucky to meet his seventh-ranked countryman, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

With his win in Montpellier, Gasquet now has a tour-leading record of 14-1 in singles. He’s clearly bent on building on his recent success. “I realize this is my best season start ever and I just want to keep going and stay healthy,” Gasquet told the press after his win. “I am leaving tomorrow to Rotterdam, then Marseille, which is also an important tournament in France for me.”

It doesn’t sound like Gasquet is all bummed out that it’s February. Perhaps we shouldn’t be, either.

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