By Yeshayahu Ginsburg
The 2013 ATP World Tour season kicks off this week with three different events. There are 250-level tournaments in Brisbane, Doha, and Chennai. And while Doha has carried the most star power of those three tournaments in the past few years, this year that really isn’t so true. I’m not going to compare the strength of the draws, but the top players competing this week are definitely more spread out than they have been in the past few years.
Last year, Brisbane carried with it a bit of a tease. James Duckworth, a then-19-year-old Australian player, received a Wild Card into the Main Draw and really played well. He pulled off a great upset of Nicolas Mahut in the first round and really pushed Gilles Simon in the second. He followed that up with a win at the Australian Open in Melbourne but has really fallen off of form since then. He was losing to bad players in Challengers and Futures at the end of 2012 and just lost in the second qualifying round in Brisbane this year. I saw his talent last year and am still waiting for him to break through, but it won’t be in Brisbane this year.
The question, though, is what can Brisbane teach us this year? What young players can showcase the beginning of their season and what veterans can impress us moving into the Australian Open? The answer to that latter question is a bit tricky, actually. Because on some level, sometimes it’s not so good to see players exert themselves so much right before a Slam. For example, a great run by Jurgen Melzer here would not bode well for his time in Melbourne because he is playing in Auckland next week as well.
So who am I looking at? For starters, there’s a first-round match between David Goffin and Matthew Ebden. Goffin really came into form last summer (in the Northern Hemisphere) and ended with an impressive season. At the young age of 22, he looks like he can be a top 20 player or higher if he can sustain the form he brought to Wimbledon last year. Ebden, meanwhile, has been an up-and-comer so long that he is risking becoming a journeyman. He has the talent to break through and be a solid top 50 player, but will probably never really challenge for Slams. This match can tell us a lot more about Ebden than Goffin right now, but Goffin is the one to keep an eye on if you want to see someone with future Grand Slam potential.
I am also keeping an eye on Brian Baker. Baker returned to tennis from years of injury and surgeries and won his first 7 (including qualifying) tour-level matches to reach the final in Nice. Exhausted, he still took Gilles Simon to 5 sets in the second round at Roland Garros and followed that up by winning 6 matches at Wimbledon to come through qualifying and reach the fourth round. He could not equal that success the rest of the year and only won two more Main Draw matches in tournaments the rest of the year. He actually has top 10 potential and this could give us a good indication as to whether he will be able to compete at a high level when we watch Melbourne in two weeks.
There are very few of the top seeds that I am worried about seeing this week. For them, these pre-Slam tune-ups are about finding a rhythm and getting used to match play again after an extended break, and not so much about winning. It’s always nice to win, of course, but their main goal is to prepare themselves to do their best at the Australian Open. So when I’m watching the top 5 seeds here, I’m not so worried about their intensity level so much. I just want to see consistency and no major flaws in their form. I’m not so worried if players like Murray, Simon, or Nishikori lose early, even to bad players, as long as their loss comes more from disinterested play than poor play.
The one player who I want to see play as much as possible but who I just feel bad about pulling for is Lleyton Hewitt. I see Hewitt play against the top players and I just always realize that he can still compete as long as his body holds up. Once fatigue hits, though, he doesn’t stand a chance against anyone. So I want to see him work his way into form here so that he can have another miraculous run at the Australian Open. But I know that the more he plays here the more likely it is that he won’t be able to compete as long in Melbourne. The best warm-up he can have here for his Australian Open would be a tough, well-played, straight-sets loss to Andy Murray in the third round. He can’t go as deep as any of the top players anymore, but counting him out of any match is always a bad idea.