By Maud Watson
Quick out of the Gates
It’s a new year, it’s a new tennis season, and the men of the ATP World Tour are wasting no time in dusting away any cobwebs that may have formed during the short off season. With the exception of Fernando Verdasco, the Top 10 men who played in the opening week of competition have looked solid as they prepare for the opening Grand Slam of 2011. As an added treat, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal squared off in the final of the Abu Dhabi exhibition event, much to the delight of the crowd and fans around the world. Nadal emerged triumphant in a tight two-set encounter that seemed to promise plenty of fireworks to come in their captivating rivalry.
Slow off the Mark
The exact opposite of the men’s tour at the moment would be the women of the WTA. Tennis superstar Serena Williams isn’t even playing, but some of her main rivals are failing to find their footing and take advantage of the American’s absence. Top players like Svetlana Kuznetsova, Sam Stosur, Shahar Peer, and even Maria Sharapova (though she was returning from a long injury layoff) have all been bounced early in their warm-up events for the Aussie Open. Then again, the women’s season ended on a relatively topsy-turvy note, so it would appear that 2011 is merely picking up where 2010 left off.
One of the WTA’s top stars who is enjoying some solid play is veteran Justine Henin. The Belgian is representing her home nation in the Hopman Cup mixed team competition, and while she admits that she is not yet 100%, she’s happy to be back and competing. For having not played since last year’s Wimbledon, Henin has looked decent, and with the way the rest of the women’s field is currently performing, don’t count out last year’s Australian Open finalist as a dark horse to go one better in Melbourne. On the men’s side and also competing in the Hopman Cup is Australian Lleyton Hewitt. “Rusty” is raring to go and happy to report that he’s feeling great out on the court once again. He believes he can make it back into the Top 10, and while that’s certainly a tough task, there are few players who can match the determination and intensity of the man who holds the distinction of being the youngest to finish as World No. 1.
While the two charity exhibition matches between Federer and Nadal took place last December, it’s worth taking one more moment to further recognize their willingness to serve others. Theirs is a rivalry that is one of the greatest that the sport has ever seen, and it is extremely polarizing to many of their fans. Yet the two men at the heart of it are able to see well beyond what the annals of the game will say long after their careers are done. As Pat McEnroe pointed out while doing commentary for the match in Switzerland, you never would have seen his brother doing such a thing with the likes of Jimmy Connors or Ivan Lendl while in the prime of their careers. It speaks volumes for both Federer and Nadal that they are willing to give up a bit of their off season and risk giving away any edge they may have in their games in an effort to raise money, hope and awareness for those less fortunate.
Two other tidbits worth mentioning occurred over the course of the off season. First, a good-bye to the quirky German Nicolas Kiefer. The former World No. 4 has suffered injury problems with his wrist and has decided to call it a day. With a wife and a new baby daughter, one can hardly blame him. He was a joy to watch, and he will be missed. The second item is an early welcome back to Wayne Odesnik. Odesnik was to have still been serving a suspension for importing HGH into Australia, but the ITF reduced his ban, explaining that there had been “substantial assistance provided by Mr. Odesnik in relation to the enforcement of professional rules of conduct.” It will be interesting to see how he is received as he tries to make his way back on tour.