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The return of the tennis heroes

The top tennis players have been absent since the Australian Open but the wait to see them back on court again is about to end.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 29:  Roger Federer of Switzerland poses with the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup after winning the Men's Final match against Rafael Nadal of Spain on day 14 of the 2017 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 29, 2017 in Melbourne, Australia.  (Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images)
Nadal and Federer return to competitive tennis for the first time since the Australian Open finals

For die-hard tennis fans, the past couple of weeks have been as monotonous as the days after a magnificent vacation. They walk into work and sit in meetings but their minds are elsewhere. Every time they are asked a question, they seem startled. Whenever they are handed a task, they accept it with a bored sigh.

Ever since Roger Federer’s age-defying victory over rival Rafael Nadal at the Australian Open, the top names in men’s tennis have been absent from the court. The crescendo of emotions that every fan felt over the course of that see-sawing final left an empty void once the tournament ended.

Unlike rock bands faking their departure when they have their best still saved for last, the heroes of tennis didn’t return to the stage for an encore. Live moments of sporting magic, unfortunately, can’t be recreated that easily. Since then the fans have relied on video-sharing websites to satiate their unending desire for more.

The top players are back

But the wait is now finally over. After four weeks of rest once the carnival left the Rod Laver Arena, the matadors of tennis return this Monday in two different tournaments on opposite sides of the planet. Novak Djokovic, post a last-minute change in plans, is joining Nadal in the Abierto Mexicano Telcel tournament in Acapulco, Mexico. Federer and Andy Murray come together in the draw at the Dubai Duty-Free Tennis Championships.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 19:  Novak Djokovic of Serbia reacts after losing a point in his second round match against Denis Istomin of Uzbekistan on day four of the 2017 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 19, 2017 in Melbourne, Australia.  (Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images)
Djokovic signed up for the Acapulco tournament at the last minute after his early Australian Open exit

These competitions are two of thirteen ATP World Tour 500 tournaments that will be held in 2017. Not as important as the ATP 1000 Masters Series and nowhere close to being as prestigious as the Grand Slams, the ATP 500s still attract famous names in tennis with reasonable frequency.

Out of the ten top-ranked men’s tennis players in the world, nine will be stepping out on court next week. Mexico is the more favoured destination, with two-thirds of the cream preferring to play the Central American tournament instead of spending time in the Middle East.

Kei Nishikori is the only top ten player conspicuous by his absence. He is following a different schedule, having chosen to spend the weeks after the Australian Open competing in ATP 250 clay court tournaments in South America. As a strong baseliner, clay is his favourite surface and he was clearly looking to pick up ranking points against weaker opposition. The plan didn’t quite work though as he lost early in Brazil.

Acapulco or Dubai?

Both the tournaments are played on hard courts, although Acapulco was surfaced with clay until 2014. While their standing on the ATP tour is equal, Dubai offers $1.2 million more in total prize money. However, in the battle to woo more players, Acapulco is still the winner.

There are many factors that determine a player’s schedule. Tournaments are chosen carefully, especially when the current physicality of the game can take a toll if the workload isn’t carefully managed. Amongst the topmost sportsmen, minor changes in prize money are hardly an important consideration.

A few hundred thousand dollars either way is only going to make a trivial difference to their annual multimillion dollar pay cheques.

DUBAI, UAE - FEBRUARY 22:  In preparation for the Dubai Duty Free Men's Open, tennis legend Andre Agassi of the USA and the World's No. 1 Roger Federer of Switzerland, couldn't resist the temptation to have a friendly 'hit' on the world's most unique tennis court, the Helipad of the Burj Al Arab, the world's most luxurious hotel on February 22, 2005, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates Standing 321 metres high on a man made island, the majestic Burj Al Arab is without doubt the most recognizable hotel in the world. The hotel's helipad, which is situated 211 metres high covers a surface area of 415 square metres. Roger Federer is the reigning champion of the Dubai Duty Free Men's Open and is making his third appearance in the tournament. For Agassi this is his first time to appear in the ATP tournament where he has already progressed to the second round having beaten Radek Stepanek of the Czech Republic.  (Photo by Mike Hewitt for Dubai Duty Free Via Getty Images)
Federer famously practised with Agassi on the Burj al Arab hotel helipad in Dubai

Some players have longstanding relationships with particular venues and those play a role in their scheduling decisions. Federer has a home in Dubai and he has been a regular competitor at the city’s flagship tournament for many years. Past images of him practising against Andre Agassi on top of the Burj al Arab hotel are still considered iconic. At this stage of his career when he is considering his legacy, he wouldn’t desert the Dubai organisers in the 25th anniversary of their championship.

Most of the other players, though, have possibly chosen Acapulco instead of Dubai for tactical reasons. Early next month, the tennis calendar rolls to the first couple of ATP 1000 tournaments to be held this year. The BNP Paribas Open begins on 9th March in Indian Wells, California and the Miami Open in Florida follows the week after.

The flight to California is a lot shorter from Acapulco compared to Dubai and the travelling time between tournaments has to be a factor. The players don’t want to be marred by mental fatigue over the long season and such seemingly minor considerations make a difference. Playing a tournament in Mexico helps them contain the stress of travel and jetlag before the beginning of two crucial tournaments in America.

Their body clocks will have ample time to get back in rhythm. Two weeks of practice and performance in similar conditions is much better preparation than the five days they would get if they played in Dubai.

No longer invincible

Djokovic and Nadal will aim to meet in the finals in Mexico but upcoming players like Milos Raonic and Dominic Thiem can derail them early. Stan Wawrinka’s powerful ground strokes are always a handful on a hard court, as was evident in his Australian Open semi-finals against Federer. His performance in Dubai will be no different.

The young turks of tennis no longer consider their idols invincible. Their confident attitude against Murray and Djokovic in the first Grand Slam led to unexpected defeats for the top seeds and no match can be taken for granted. After a lull, the tennis season picks up steam again. There will be no more pauses till the World Tour Finals in London later in November.

The fans may have been impatient but the reward will certainly be worth the wait. The band is back on stage and every melody will be an unrelenting hit. Can you hear the racket strings strumming like a guitar already? 

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