Tremors in the Antipodes
Those hoping to push into the ATP Top 10 may scatter like so many pigeons when the ground begins to shake from the footsteps of Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, but after a few days of tennis in this new season, there’s reason to speculate that this will be a year of change.
You wouldn’t exactly say the revolution is underway based on the scant evidence of a few days, but losses by Andy Murray, Tomas Berdych, and David Ferrer (all in Doha), plus the likes of Fernando Verdasco, Philipp Kohlschreiber, and others falling elsewhere suggest that things could get a little western right below the very top tier. After all, Verdasco was once ranked as high as No. 7 and he’s still just 30, a spring chicken by today’s standards in the ATP.
And is it an ominous sign for the status quo that Stanislas Wawrinka, top-seeded in Chennai, began his 2014 campaign by mercilessly crushing Benjamin Becker in 6-3. 6-1?
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
The biggest upsets thus far have clearly come out of Doha. Forgive me for being a skeptic, but the tournament is an ATP 250 that has the blessing of the powers that be to dole out substantial appearance fees. Given that the tournament is played in an oil-rich desert kingdom, we can assume that the amounts lavished on the players have to be taken off-site in wheelbarrow rather than a wallet.
But still, the losses by Ferrer, Murray, and Berdych—three of the Top 10—may prove prophetic.
At No. 3, Ferrer is the highest if not most convincingly ranked. He’s also closing fast on 32 years of age, and his effortful, stamina- and concentration-heavy game doesn’t age gracefully. Although he finished strong last year, reaching the finals of his last three regular-season tournaments (including one Masters 1000), Ferrer experienced some puzzling, seemingly age-related bad days in 2013. His loss to Daniel Brands in Doha may be the canary in the mine.
Then there’s Murray. The reigning Wimbledon champ pulled the plug on 2013 following the U.S. Open in order to have minor surgery on his back. If he sticks to his published schedule, he’ll have played exactly two competitive singles match in a tournament since Wawrinka (there’s that name again!) blew him out in the quarterfinals of Flushing Meadows.
One match was his three-set loss to Florian Mayer, during which Murray led 6-3, 3-0. The other? A not-so-competitive love-and-love humiliation of a sacrificial wild card in the first round at Doha, ATP No. 2,129 Mousa Shanan Zaved.
Murray could console himself with the fact that world No. 1 Rafael Nadal, in his own comeback tournament last year at Vina del Mar, lost to 73rd-ranked Horacio Zeballos. What Murray will not want to dwell upon is that Nadal’s match was a final; he had salted away three impressive wins rolling into it.
Will No. 4 Murray change his plans and ask for a wild card into Sydney or Auckland next week, because of his second-round loss? It’s an interesting question. But the most intriguing aspect of Murray’s situation is that he’s defending 1,450 points from a win at the 250 event in Brisbane at the start of last year, along with a run to the 2013 Australian Open final. Juan Martin del Potro currently trails Murray by just 500 points in the rankings.
Del Potro is solidly entrenched at No. 5, lacking only that extra smidgen of confidence or determination that would enable him to elbow his way into the Big Four. Ferrer and Murray could hardly be blamed for casting nervous looks over their shoulders, but it’s not like Nos. 6 and 7 in the rankings can rest easy.
Let’s start with No. 6, Roger Federer. He avoided the desert shootout in Doha, content to be the big cheese in Brisbane this week. The No. 2 seed in Brisbane is world No. 17 Kei Nishikori, so it’s Federer’s tournament to lose—which translates to significant pressure on the all-time Grand Slam singles champ, as well as his new coach, six-time Grand Slam champ and former No. 1 Stefan Edberg.
Check that—maybe Edberg isn’t under any pressure at all, judging from the things either man has been saying since Federer announced the partnership. It’s a “part-time consultancy,” with overtones of a bromance. You needn’t be a rocket scientist to figure out what Edberg is doing in the Federer camp, but lest you think it’s never occurred to The Mighty Fed to run up to the net and smack a volley, here’s what he told the press in Brisbane:
“I've tried many things. We can debate—with Severin Luthi, my coach—about ways to come to the net or not. . . It's a combination of many things now against the good players we know at the top. So it's going to be interesting to see what he (Edberg) has to say.”
Try a jet pack? Set off a smoke bomb and rush the net? Hit a sky-high lob and run forward? We’ll see.
Federer also is giving the 98 square-inch racquet (the size refers to the hitting area) that betrayed him so cruelly last summer another try after practicing with it extensively in the off-season. He won his first match in Brisbane convincingly, 6-4, 6-2 over Jarkko Nieminen.
Berdych, at No. 7, is a different story. He played a full year in 2013, the highlight of which was his leadership role on the Czech team that successfully defended the Davis Cup. I wouldn’t underestimate how much that meant to him, but as far as ATP or Grand Slam tournaments go, you could describe Berdych as a consistent bust—less so because he failed consistently (there’s a reason he’s No. 7) than because he played consistently yet couldn’t take the winner’s trophy at a single event in 2013. And when you’ve been in the heart of the Top 10 for as long as Berdych, the goal is to hoist that silver.
Berdych lost a pair of tiebreakers to Ivo Karlovic in their first-round Doha clash—no shame in that, given Karlovic’s atomic serve. But Berdych’s stomach still does flips when he smells blood, especially his own. And at this stage in the 28-year-old’s career, it’s not likely that he’ll develop a Nadal-esque zest for seizing those critical opportunities more often.
Given recent history, you have to look at Federer and Berdych also as vulnerable in their respective ranking positions. They will certainly be in the cross-hairs of Wawrinka, and perhaps even that pair of sometimes baffling Frenchmen at the bottom of the Top 10, Richard Gasquet and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Gasquet was beaten in Doha by his countryman Gael Monfils, who is entitled to harbor Top 10 intentions himself.
The WTA has produced a few comparable surprises, most notably Vania King’s upset of No. 2 seed Sara Errani in Shenzhen. Li Na, the top seed there, should coast to the title. Shenzhen had a grand total of seven women from China or Taipei in the draw, but the only one who made the haven of the quarterfinals besides Li is Peng Shuai.
Auckland lost top-seeded Roberta Vinci in the very first round—always a humiliating experience for a person so honored, and particularly so when the upset is a stunner. Ana Konjuh, the Croatian who ousted Vinci, is a wild card who’s just 16 years old and ranked No. 259. Remember her name.
Worse yet, at least for Vinci, is that Konjuh was then beaten by Lauren Davis. Three seeds made the semis in Auckland: No. 2 Ana Ivanovic, No. 3 Kirsten Flipkens, and No. 5 Jamie Hampton. But the name that leaps from the brackets is that of unseeded Venus Williams—Hampton’s opponent in the all-American semi.
But another Williams is destined to steal Venus’ thunder, as she’s done with an almost vocational zeal. Venus’ sister Serena meets Maria Sharapova in the semifinals in Brisbane tomorrow.
Isn’t it too early in the year for this kind of thing? Hats off to the WTA and the ladies in question for cutting to the chase. Consider the season jump-started.