The Rally: Winter Ball
Today my fellow editor Richard Pagliaro and I talk about February tennis—what are its underrated pleasures, and how much does it mean down the road?
Even though most of the top players are involved, or will be involved soon, February still has the feel of a lull in the season, doesn't it? Last year I seem to remember it differently, but maybe that was just because Rafael Nadal was making his comeback at this time of year. I know the end of the season is knocked as a sleepy time in tennis, but this month has given it a run for its money.
What, if anything, can we read into the results over the last few weeks? Titles have been won by Berdych, Nishikori, Halep, Ferrer, Pavlyuchenkova, Cilic, Monfils. Do we see them winning at the big U.S events next month? February is two steps removed from the game's most important events—next are the March Masters/Premier tournaments, and after that, still three months away, are the majors. It's hard to imagine anyone sustaining their momentum all that time. If the tours' schedules were done with a little more logic in mind, the pro might be in Australia now, playing in the warm-up events for Melbourne, and we wouldn’t this in-between time.
Yet there are things I like about tennis in this month. The stakes are lower, and so the chatter around the game doesn't get (quite) as heated. I like getting a glimpse of what players outside the Top 5—Berdych, Monfils, Halep—can do when they don't have to face the Nadals and Serenas of the world. And I like the atmosphere, through the TV, of the South American events at night. There's a mellow festive feel to all of them that makes me wish I were there. For that reason alone, I’m glad that Rio has been added to the tour.
What do you think, Richard? What do you get out of this time of year?
Watching February tennis reminds me of students facing college exams after winter recess. Some are rested and ready to be tested, some struggle to recalibrate the body clock and readjust to the routine, and others are already distracted by thoughts of spending spring break in Miami.
There’s a tendency to see the schedule in segments leading toward a larger goal, the way the U.S. Open Series builds to the U.S. Open. February tennis can feel more like a climbing wall than a bridge, but I think Berdych winning Rotterdam was significant even though he beat just one Top 25 player to do it. Snapping a 16-month title drought while backing up his Australian Open semifinal result is not only positive for his psyche, it sets him up for a shot at the Top 5 if he plays well in Indian Wells and Miami, two places he’s produced solid results in the past (Miami final in 2010, Indian Wells semifinal last year). While I was thrilled to see Monfils play so assertively to win Montpellier (isn’t it crazy he’s only won five titles in his career?), I can’t say I’m expecting him to continue playing with such control after watching him go out to del Potro in a distracted effort in Rotterdam.
Maybe it’s because of the distance between some February events and the spring Masters tournaments in March, but last year, when Kvitova nearly knocked Serena out of the Doha quarterfinals then beat four Top 15 players in succession to win Dubai, I was convinced that performance would propel her in Indian Wells and Miami, and it didn’t happen. After her struggles at both tournaments this month, she may be spending her spring trying to stay in the Top 10. Azarenka beat Serena to win Doha last February, but suffered an ankle injury that forced her to withdraw from Indian Wells’ quarterfinals and she couldn’t play Miami. Both are battling issues now, what can we expect from Petra and Vika in the immediate future?
Two players trending in February are fun to watch: Kei Nishikori, who successfully defended his title in Memphis, and Fabio Fognini, who won Vina del Mar, then reached his fifth straight clay-court final in Buenos Aires. Both are within striking distance of the Top 10, both are flashy shotmakers slightly undersized in today's game and neither has a strong career record in Masters events. Are they Top 10 players in your mind?
February is also the funky title trophy month. The Paris trophy resembles a racquet mold, Memphis offers the mini guitar ideal for jamming during the trophy photo; Dubai presents a silver sailing ship for the men and the women’s silverware looks like a super-sized tea pot and the Buenos Aires trophy looks like twin razor blade towers.
Doubles can occupy the spotlight in February, I watched the Williams sisters play in Dubai yesterday and Peng Shuai became the first Chinese to hold the world No. 1 doubles ranking. What’s been the biggest surprise for you this month, Steve?
I think the biggest surprise to me was Simona Halep in Doha. It wasn't the fact that she won the tournament; she won six last year. And it wasn't even the fact that she beat three Top 10 players to do it; she's in the Top 10 herself. It was how easy she made it look, against three of the peskier players on tour—Errani, Radwanska, and Kerber. Halep was better in all parts of the game than they were, and it was fun to see how simple and logical she made things look on court. Now, unfortunately, she has an Achilles' problem. But I get the feeling she'll be climbing higher within the Top 10.
To me, February is what the tours might look like all year if they hadn't conquered the curse of the appearance fee 20 years ago. This month, of course, is filled with guarantees—Doha and Dubai have built their reputations on them, especially on the men's side. But that's the way the tours were heading in general in the 1980s, when there were few if any mandatory events, and top players were scattered all over the world, chasing dollars and spending half their time playing exhibitions. The men's game has benefitted immensely from the Masters Series, and the women are getting there with the Premier tiers. February is the only mont of the season without a mandatory event, and it shows.
There's never quite the same sense of urgency among the big names when they've collected their money up front—it's human nature, and it's a big part of what makes this time of the season less exciting and important. Which kind of makes it the right time of year for Fognini and Nishikori to thrive. Those guys are shot-makers and fun to watch, but to me they both seem complacent about their positions in the game. Neither sees winning majors, or even Masters events, as their birthright, the way the best players always do.
Radwanska is wrong-footed about as often as Pete Sampras foot-faulted, so to see Halep continuously befuddle such a clever player is a credit to her court positioning—she's dancing right behind the baseline when she's sharp—and court sense. I've seldom seen Radwanska, a drop-shot artist herself, so tormented by the dropper.
There's a lot to like about Halep: She knows how to win, she wins plenty of free points with her slice serve down the T, she doesn't dawdle between points, she plays with clarity off the front foot, and her forehand down the line is a damaging shot. Next to the 5'4" Errani, Halep is the shortest woman in the Top 10, so finding a way to change up the pace and angle when she faces heavier hitters—Madison Keys and Dominika Cibulkova both blew her out this year—may be challenges, but I'm with you on her ability. Halep has the shots and an understanding of how to use them, which some players never really grasp.
The almost round-the-clock time span of February tournaments is fun because I feel I can drop out of life and drop in on tennis any time, and sometimes you catch veterans in free flow or free fall. I watched the end of Feliciano Lopez's comeback win over Sam Querrey in Delray earlier this week and F-Lo's slice serve still has the liquid flow, while Querrey had that dazed look of trying to duck the inevitable. I caught some of Stosur and Pennetta's doubles match from today, and in one sequence Stosur swarmed the net, launching herself into every volley with such aggression I found myself wondering, "Why doesn't she try that a lot more often?"
One byproduct of night matches in the desert is sometimes it gets so cool the crowd thins out. When that happens it's like someone turned the court-side microphone up and the soundtrack of the sport comes alive. You hear the players venting to their boxes, exhorting themselves, as Ana Ivanovic did after saving match point in her win over Kerber, or even on the edge of eruption, when Serena, increasingly irritated by her stray shots, smashed her racquet against Ekaterina Makarova.
Maybe that's something we could see in future Februarys: Wire a few players for sound as NFL Films does, add some subtitles when necessary, and then we'd get to eavesdrop on dialogue between Courier and Querrey, Serena and JJ, and Gulbis and his id.