Only a couple of weeks into the new season, and the tennis on display these past few days has been mighty impressive. Even a watchmaker of Antoine Preziuso’s pedigree might envy the precision with which some of the players have been striking those flat floating beauties across the net to skim the lines and kiss the corners. These are early days, but we have already witnessed some crafty work from the likes of Serena Williams, Rafael Nadal, Lleyton Hewitt and Ana Ivanovic.
Not too far in the past, January was a month of lazing for the established tennis professional. Even as the lesser mortals leapt into the bullring hungry for some points and porridge, the biggest stars were still deep into their holidays or were busy preparing for the season ahead in their own lairs. Bjorn Borg was a classic case – the only time he ever showed up in Australia was in 1974. Over a career that spanned 157 grand slam matches, the flambouyant Swede played a grand total of two matches in the Australian Open.
The neo-modern era though offers no easy passes to the players. It is extremely competitive and a few weeks off the grid can prove rather expensive, like Janko Tipsarevic is about to learn even as he nurses his way back from injury. The Serbian is likely to be thrown out of the top 50, when all is said and done this Australian Open series. He was in the top 10 only in May last year, but has been recovering from a ruptured tendon in his heel for the past few months.
The players of this millenium have a well defined regime to prepare for the grind and a team of professionals that work rigorously with the player to ensure that they are primed and ready after just a brief hiatus from the busy circus. Evidence of their intensity and brilliance is to be found in plenty if you were watching some of the the action in the Asia Pacific. We are only three days away from the first grand slam of the year and the bunch at the top seems better prepared than ever.
In recent years, we have witnessed some brutal battles from inside the cauldron at Melbourne – the valiant effort of Fernando Verdasco, who failed only by inches to usurp Nadal in the semi-finals despite looking ahead several times in that 6–7(4), 6–4, 7–6(2), 6–7(1), 6–4 marathon was a classic example. The 5hour 14minute duel became the longest match in Australian Open history, but the record did not last long.
Novak Djokovic and Nadal got into a beastial brawl that lasted nearly six hours, before the Serbian prevailed 5–7, 6–4, 6–2, 6–7(5), 7–5 to take the title in 2012. These are the kind of efforts that underline the intensity and desire of the modern professional to succeed week in week out, Christmas and New Year can wait for retirement and beyond.
The prolific grand slam collection of Roger Federer has been cushioned by his winning as many as four Australian Open titles, even as he ruled over the tour at the height of his prowess. The start of the season has witnessed 360 degree transformation – while Wimbledon is still the most revered grand slam title, players have repeatedly asserted that the junket in Melbourne is among the best organised events on the calendar, certainly the finest grand slam event.
Compared to its earlier existence as the least preferred of the majors, the metamorphosis has been no less than a stunning change in fortunes. The grand slam of the Asia Pacific has worked increasingly hard over the years to create the ambience and experience needed to win mind and heart space among players, the fans and the media. The tournament director Craig Tiley has spared no effort in helping envision and realise this transformation for the first major of the season.
In fact the style and effort of Tiley have so impressed the players that, Andy Murray, Nadal and Djokovic lobbied pretty hard last year to try and get him elevated to the role of Chief Executive of the ATP World Tour. While Chris Kermode got the eventual nod to run the governing body, the fact that Tiley was in the mix underlined the success of his efforts at the Australian Open.
The most important factor though has been an increased level of professionalism among players and their support teams. There is no time to relax for most of the top athletes, who get back to work after a few days break immediately after the Tour Finals in London. Federer was back on court just two weeks after the event, looking to find ways to stem the tide of age that is beginning to rock him back. His effort to regain lost glory adds a layer of emotional complexity to the ATP narrative this year.
Nadal traveled out for a few exhibition matches, but was quickly back in Manacor doing some cross training besides grinding it out on the court under the watchful gaze of his uncle Toni Nadal. Juan Martin Del Potro was in Argentina, working through a strength and fitness regimen that betrayed no signs of the sport he practices. It will be interesting to see if he is able to translate his work into grand slam success and add to his lone title at the US Open in 2009.
Djokovic combined work and pleasure, doubling his holiday by the sea into an opportunity to simultaneously tone his muscles even as he relaxed his mind in the company of fiancé, Jelena Ristic. Women’s world No.1 Serena did something similar, flying to Mauritius with Patrick Mouratoglou for holiday and off season preparation.
Canadian star Milos Raonic, who became the first Canadian to break through into the top ten, also intensified his preparations aiming to consolidate his good start and forge further up the rankings this year. Raonic, along with Del Potro, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Stanislas Wawrinka, Grigor Dimitrov, Bernard Tomic (if he can walk a straight line) and Jerzy Janowicz are an eclectic collection of players likely to threaten the hegemony of the troika at the top.
The fans are aching for a breakthrough just as much as the players in the neighbourhood of this elite generation that has dominated tennis with ruthless consistency. And the journey to usurp power has begun one more time. It promises to be fascinating and just for effect, the men at the top are in no hurry to relent. Another season of great tennis beckons us, so find a comfortable perch to enjoy the action.Published 08 Jan 2014, 09:57 IST