It was mid-summer in the Southern Hemisphere, mid-winter in the North. For the men and women of pro tennis, the five-week interval between Australian Open 2013 and the big events at Indian Wells and Miami -- mainly the month of February -- was hardly a time for recovery and preparation. The topmost headliners indeed sat out some of the action. But for all the other professional seekers of gold and glory, it was a chance to move upward, to meet and perhaps defeat their close equals in head-to-head tennis, in far-flung engagements more numerous than in other periods.
Meanwhile for inveterate watchers of the sport, the five weeks brought delights aplenty, i.e...
-- the opening rounds of Davis Cup and Fed Cup,
-- a showdown in Doha deciding the current La Prima of women's tennis
-- a comparable showdown in Dubai testing the current El Primo,
-- the return of Rafael Nadal after seven months on the sidelines,
-- a remarkable run indoors by the French males,
-- another circus of serving by Milos Raonic, and
-- much action in the busy Challenger and ITF Pro circuits.
The sixteen nations of Davis Cup World Group 2013 paired off, 1-3 February, competing for places in the final eight.
Two meetings were decided in fifth rubbers amid much drama. Italy's balanced line-up prevailed over Croatia when Fognini and Seppi both won a singles match and Bolelli-Fognini won the doubles. The three Italian wins thus trumped two in singles by Croatia's Marin Cilic. Meanwhile in Florida, U.S.A.'s Isner and Querrey served their way to victories in first-day singles matches. But then the Bryans lost to the strong pair Melo-Soares, and Isner lost to Bellucci. The team tally was now tied, but U.S. still seemed safe, as Sam Querrey far outranked his opponent, Thiago Alves, a veteran of the Challenger Tour. But in their Sunday show-down Thiago proved often the cleaner and more aggressive striker. Querrey under pressure stayed patient and well within his own limits, and Sam finally won their fourth-set tiebreaker to finish matters. Querrey led one-sidedly in aces and serving prowess, but without that edge, the balance otherwise pointed to Alves.
An unexpected winner in Vancouver was team Canada, which defeated Spain lacking Nadal and Ferrer. Meanwhile last year's Cup champion, Czech Republic, defeated host-nation Switzerland lacking Federer. The critical match came when Berdych defeated Wawrinka in a fourth-set tiebreaker. The doubles had been even closer, the Czechs winning the fifth set by score 24 games to 22. Berdych contributed two singles and a doubles win during the weekend but finished with a strained right wrist, requiring Tomas's withdrawal from tournament action the next week.
With Spain now eliminated, Serbia, led by Djokovic, became the most likely champion nation of 2013. Meanwhile play has began among the hundred or so other nations in this year's zonal competition. Eight teams will emerge from Zone I to compete along with the eight early losers in World Group 2013 for places in World Group 2014.
Davis Cup remains an important cement for pro tennis, unbroken in continuity from the early history of the sport except in wartime. Peoples everywhere seem innately drawn to national team competition. Here is the tally of Davis Cup crowns won in this century, starting in 2001.
Czech Republic, Serbia, U.S.A., Croatia, Australia, France, each 1.
Fed Cup first round came the next weekend. In head-to-head match-ups, the eight nations of World Group I determined the four semi-finalists for the 2013 crown.
Czech Republic and Slovak Republic both knocked out potentially dangerous opponents (Australia and Serbia) without having to face a deciding, fifth, doubles match.
Meanwhile Russia (with Kirilenko, Makarova, and Vesnina) defeated Japan despite two singles wins by Ayumi Morita, 22. Similarly Italy (with Errani and Vinci) defeated visiting U.S.A., overcoming two singles wins by America's Varvara Lepchenko. It ended when the Italian pair --the world's top-ranked -- showed their superior quickness and skills, winning the last match, the doubles, in straight sets.
Errani and Vinci are indeed fine clay-court warriors in doubles and singles. That line-up on that surface will be problematic for any opponent. Italy will next host Czech Republic, Russia will host the Slovaks.
This year's final-four nations are also leaders in the tally of Fed Cup crowns starting in 2001:
Czech Republic, 2
Belgium, France, Slovak Republic, each 1.
Unlike in Davis Cup, players winning matches in Fed Cup receive no individual rewards in ranking points. Attracting superstars like Serena and Sharapova regularly to Cup play appears to require strong inducements -- eligibility for the Olympics, as at present, along with substantial ranking points.
SHOWDOWN IN DOHA
The period's richest and most prestigious tournament was Qatar Total Open, a Premium Five hard-court women's event in Doha, 11-17 February.
On hand were the current Big Four -- Azarenka, Sharapova, Serena Williams, and Agnieszka Radwanska, Agnieszka being well behind in ranking points but with an impressive run of success in 2013 to date. Form held strongly as the Big Four became the tournament's final four. In the semi-finals, as usual Azarenka's power subdued Radwanska and Serena's mobility and rocketry comfortably overcame Sharapova's one-dimensional power game. Thus the final pitted the recent Australian champion, Azarenka, against the woman who had commanded the second half of 2012, Serena Williams.
Azarenka took set one in a tiebreaker, Serena won set two, and Vika broke Serena's serve early in set three. But Serena seemed determined and strong, stirring recollections of her past late-hour surges. But there would be no familiar rush on this date by Serena, no enormity of scoreboard pressure on Vika. Serena did produce occasional bursts of strong play toward the finish, but it was Vika who maintained her excellent depth of shot and often-forceful play. Whereas in her great season of 2012 Serena had attacked net regularly, she now seemed uninterested in trying to finish from forecourt. Too often Serena, too slow to find best striking position, produced awkward and inaccurate offerings. Azarenka d. S. Williams 76 26 63.
Despite the loss, Serena now replaced Victoria as #1 in the official rankings. (Serena did not compete at Doha last year, so all her points at this year's Doha increased her 12-month tally without offset.) But it was now beyond question that Azarenka, having won Australian Open and Doha 2013 consecutively, was now our unofficial current La Prima of pro tennis.
Neither Vika nor Serena played at Dubai one week later. Petra Kvitova won that tournament, overwhelming all opponents with rocketry that produced winners and unforced errors by Petra aplenty. The outcomes of most points were in Petra's hands, as her tally of winners plus unforced errors exceeded those of her opponents by astonishing margins. Sara Errani, who answered well for much of their final-round match, was the only opponent to win a set from Petra.
A highlight of early February was the return of Rafael Nadal -- his first competition since Wimbledon last year. Rafa moved through his early opponents on the Chilean clay fairly comfortably, relishing the conditions and his own energy. But in the tournament's final match, 10 February, Rafa faced left-handed Horatio Zeballos, 27, from Argentina, who had won three recent Challengers prior to Australia. Horatio showed excellent serving ability along with many precise forehands and backhands to the sides and corners. Rafa captured the first set in a tiebreaker, raising his game at the finish. But after that Rafa largely retreated to passive tactics, generally allowing his opponent the initiative, seemingly unconfident. It was now Horatio most often moving his opponent, often with remarkable shot-making. Rafa's three-set loss was unexpected, but there seemed little doubt that Horatio deserved to be the winner.
Enroute to the final in Sao Paulo, Brasil, the next week, Nadal was twice taken to three sets, by Argentine players Berlocq and Alund. But Nadal went on to win the tournament, defeating veteran Nalbandian, 31, in a straight-set final. Again there seemed no problems in the Nadal knee, though light bracing was visible. But Rafa's old fire seemed only occasionally there, and the relentless pressure of Rafa's blows seemed softer than in past times.
With Rafa not entering, the tournament at Buenos Aires produced a new winner, David Ferrer, who defeated Wawrinka in a split-setter. The Latin American clay sequence then concluded with its richest event, at Acapulco. Nadal and Ferrer met in the final, Ferrer having won the event the three previous years. Rafa dominated throughout the hour-long affair, the heaviness of his firepower and the impossible greatness of his defensive prowess utterly too much for Ferrer, a vastly different player than in Chile. Rafa's readiness for the prime clay season starting in April, if not Indian Wells and Miami, was beyond question.
The women too held a Latin American Swing, also concluding at Acapulco. There Sara Errani, fresh from her European exploits, prevailed.
With the indoor circuit in Europe came a remarkable run by the male players of France.
Hints of a Gallic surge in men's tennis had been seen earlier. At Australian Open 2013, the French had led all other male contingents in collecting match wins, having nosed out the usual winner, Spain, by narrow margin. The French tally had been broad-based, the result of contributions by nine different players. Major contributions also came from Chardy, Tsonga, Gasquet, Simon, and Benneteau.
The current musketeers strongly dominated the South of France Open, Montpelier, 4-10 February. Richard Gasquet won the event, overcoming rising countryman Benoit Paire in a straight-set final. Another French star, veteran Llodra, had also reached the semis, and Simon and Benneteau also reached the final eight.
One week later at Rotterdam, Federer and del Potro headed the seedings, but the excitement came mainly from French star Julien Benneteau, who reached the final without losing a set. Julien had defeated Federer indoors several years ago and now confronted Roger with excellent serving and backhand work plus plenty of court craft and determination. Roger, behind by a set and a break, seemed on the verge of equalizing the second set. But the defending champ faltered at the finish, seemingly resigned to an early departure.
Benneteau showed the same weaponry in defeating Simon in the semis. Then against del Potro in the final match Julien again played well, staging good resistance and many spectacular points. But the relentless pressure of del Potro's power and consistency paid off for the tall Argentinian. Despite a problematic nosebleed, Juan Martin finished matters with an untouchable ace. Del Potro d. Benneteau, 76 63.
The French rush resumed at Marseille, 16-24 February. Both Simon and Tsonga reached the final four, and Jo-Wilfried won the tournament, defeating Berdych closely.
A French representative in the Big Four seems needed in order to establish France's domination in men's tennis. Perhaps Jo-Wilfried Tsonga's recent success indicates his long-awaited readiness for that role.
Milos Raonic, 22, won the tournament in San Jose, 9-17 February, the place of his triumphant arrival on the world scene two years ago. Showing a first serve to the extreme edges often impossible to return along with an improving ground and net game, the pleasant Canadian stood off the re-born Tommy Haas. Milos led in aces, 19-1. But Milos then lost his first-round match at Memphis, where the winner was Kei Nishikori.
Then at Delray Beach, played on hard courts largely amid chill weather, surprises from the musketeers continued when Edouard Roger-Vasselin outlasted John Isner in a three-set semi-final. Isner was seldom at his best, except in at least equaling an all-time record by producing five consecutive aces in a single game. (The score had been love-40.) Edouard's nicely balanced game produced many accurate passing shots. Edouard then lost in the final to Ernests Gulbis, 24, who rose from the qualifying rounds to win five main-draw matches and the title.
THE MEN AT DUBAI
The ATP tournament in Dubai came in the final week of our period. On hand was a field that included four members of the men's Big Eight, all four of whom reached the semis. There, Novak Djokovic showed his all-around brilliance in defeating the less dimensional del Potro. As usual Novak's court movement and shot preparation, along with, on this occasion, much dazzling backhand work, created an invincible margin of superiority over his opponent. The ferocious rallies of the two superstars were often breathtaking. Djokovic won in a second-set tiebreaker, before an animated gallery.
The second semi was at times riveting. Roger Federer won the first set, the second stayed close. Tomas Berdych should have won the set but at set point for Tomas, a mishit by Roger landed just beyond the baseline. There was no out call, however, and Tomas failed to stop play, so the mistake stood. Then in the tiebreaker Roger three times held match point, but he failed to win all three, missing in the face of Tomas's extreme power and eventually losing the set. In the third set Berdych's heavier game proved too much for the older player's mastery, and the readiness of the Czech star to penetrate the Big Four seemed at hand. Berdych d. Federer 36 76 64.
The final match came Saturday evening, March 2. Both men played in their accustomed styles, each trying to exploit his own best weapons. For Tomas Berdych, that meant hammering everything with full power and relatively little overspin -- serves, forehands, backhands, sometimes in search of outright winners but usually eliciting weak replies that Tomas could then demolish. Djokovic's approach was more patient, opening up opponent's court by a diet of steady, heavy-spin forcefulness, mainly probing for openings, allowing the flow of points to develop. Contrary to my supposing, it seemed that the player winning most of the very long rallies was Berdych. But some of the most critical points ended with a dismal mistake by Tomas immediately after Djokovic had escaped from extreme pressure. Berdych played well, indeed evenly with the world's best player, except when it counted most. Djokovic d. Berdych 75 63.
Djokovic assuredly remains our current El Primo, having won consecutively the year-ender in London, the Australian Open, and now Dubai.
CHALLENGERS AND ITF PRO CIRCUITS
The minor leagues of pro tennis offer players prize money, ranking points, and critical experience for moving upward. A few details are offered here as a way of conveying the dimension of the activity.
The five weeks after Australia included nine ATP Challengers. The richest was in the $100K class, held on hard courts in Dallas, 2-9 February. The winner was Tennessean Rhyne Williams, 21, former NCAA runner-up, who beat veteran Rob Ginepri in the final. Rhyne now moves into strong contention for our next list of risers.
Next in prize money were three Challengers, each classed at $57K (converted from euros), held in Bergamo, Italy, and in Quimper and Cherbourg, France. The youngest winner, at Quimper, was Marius Copil, 22, 6-1, from Romania.
Meanwhile the women's ITF Pro Circuit included eleven events during the period classed at $25K or higher. Elina Svitolina, from Ukraine, won the $75K event at Eilat, Israel, and American Lauren Davis won at Midland, Michigan, classed at $100K. These successes of the two winners, aged 18 and 19, respectively, continued impressive recent rises. Two of the eleven events were played on grass, one in India, the other in Australia.
Challenger and women's ITF pro tournaments typically feature 32-player main draws and 32-player qualifiers. Each week the scheduling pattern repeats at new locations, the several rounds of qualifying play ending on Sunday of the opening weekend, the finals of the main draw one week later.
Several members of our currently active watch lists of risers made important strides in our period, as follows.
Mona Barthel won the Paris Indoors early in the month, and Lara Arruabarrena Vecino won the WTA tournament at Cali, Colombia. Sara Errani and Varvara Lepchenko starred in the Italy-U.S. Fed Cup tie, and Sara then (1) reached the final eight in Doha, losing to Azarenka, (2) reached the final at Dubai, losing to Kvitova, and (3) won the tournament at Acapulco. Kristina Mladenovic won two matches indoors in Memphis and three on outdoor clay at Florianopolis, Brazil. Paula Ormaechea reached the final at Bogota, Colombia, losing to Jankovic. Kiki Bertens won two main-draw matches and Eugenie Bouchard won the qualifiers and one main-draw match in Acapulco. Both Bertens and Bouchard were knocked out by Errani, both in straight sets though by encouraging scores.
Several male listees also attained fresh success. Milos Raonic won the tournament at San Jose, and Benoit Paire reached the final at Montpelier. Jack Sock, 20, U.S. junior champion in 2010, knocked off Raonic in the first round at Memphis. Sock's total of 11 aces nearly equaled Milos's 12. Jack then beat James Blake but lost to F. Lopez. Heavy-hitting Marinko Matosevic reached the final four at Memphis, retiring with blisters after playing well but losing the first set to Nishikori.
There were also disappointments, especially among our male listees. Jerzy Janowicz lost in the first round at Rotterdam, and David Goffin lost in the first round at Rotterdam, Marseille, and Dubai. Grega Zemlja drew Cilic at Zagreb and Federer at Rotterdam, losing in both cases. Several other listees showed little or no success at San Jose, Memphis, and Delray Beach. Guido Pella upset Fognini at San Paulo but otherwise failed to win in South America.
FIVE WEEKS FOR GOLD AND GLORY
Thus the most successful stars in the five weeks after Australia were Rafael Nadal among the men, Sara Errani among the women. Rafa earned the most ATP ranking points during the period, and Sara led in our spreadsheet compilation which includes success in Fed Cup. We earlier noted that our El Primo -- i.e., our present king-of-the-hill -- is Djokovic, and our La Prima is Azarenka. (Both triumphed in Australia and have been unbeaten since.) Finally, as of week of 4 March, the ATP's official #1, based on rolling 12-month results, remains Djokovic. The WTA's is Serena Williams.
Just ahead are the tournaments at Indian Wells and Miami, both featuring prime men's and women's fields. Soon afterwards, on 7 April, the first trimester of the current tennis year will come to an end. A new list of predicted risers will appear here on that date, accompanied by closure and post-mortem of the list announced twelve months previously.
The Sun rarely sets on pro tennis somewhere. Keeping up with the far-flung action worldwide can be an around-the-clock proposition.
--Ray Bowers, Arlington, Virginia, U.S.A.
APPENDIX -- THE CURRENT MUSKETEERS AND THE ARMADA
Listed here is the tally of matches won by the males of France and Spain at Australian Open 2013, where these two nations finished well ahead of all others. The list illustrates each nation's talent and depth in men's tennis. (Each main-draw singles win counts one here; each doubles or mixed-doubles match gives one-half credit to each partner's nation)
Chardy, 4s + 1.0d
Benneteau, 2s +1.0d
Roger-Vasselin, 1s +1.0d
Total, 20s + 4.5d = 24.5 matches won
Verdasco, 2s + 1.5d
Granollers, 1s +2.0d
F. Lopez, 1s +2.0d
Marrero, 1.5d + 1.0mx
Total, 15s + 7.0d + 1.0mx = 23.0 matches won
The absence of Nadal largely explains the French edge. But the long-standing dominance of the Armada in men's tennis seems no longer assured.