brisbane

The Importance of Week One

With the 2012 season of the ATP World Tour just getting officially underway this week, tennis fans and media alike will be closely watching how the pros come out of the starting blocks.

The Mubadala World Tennis Championship (an exhibition) in Abu Dhabi last week and now regular events in Brisbane, Chennai and Doha, have provided an alphabetically-related quartet of venues whose results may or may not mean anything by the end of the year.

Players who struggle initially and suffer early round losses will attempt to quickly put those disappointments behind them, while winners will try to keep an even keel moving forward. Still, we should not be so quick to discount these early results when looking at the big picture.

The mental consequences of victory versus defeat in the early stages will certainly impact a players progress in the first few weeks on tour. Banking some points in January provides a confidence boost along with either a jump in ranking points or at the very least the ability not to drop in the standings.

Losing yesterday in Doha to Roger Federer means that Nikolay Davydenko can kiss about 150 ranking points goodbye that he had accumulated in the same tournament a year ago. His current ranking of 41st in the world is about to take a big hit and he can clearly forget about any hopes of being seeded at the Australian Open in two weeks.

A player like American Sam Querrey will also be distraught about his opening round loss to Victor Hanescu in Chennai in the opening round. After missing three months midway through 2011 to elbow surgery, Querrey was no-doubt optimistic about starting on the right foot this season. On the plus side for Querrey, he suffered three opening round losses in-a-row a year ago, and thus has no ranking points to defend. There’s only one way for Sam to go in the rankings in January and that is up. Still, he must now regroup and move on to the next tournament hoping his luck will change.

For the top-four of Djokovic, Nadal, Federer and Murray, these first couple of week’s will be used to jostle for the available confidence and swagger required to conquer the first Grand Slam of the year in Australia. Putting the seed of doubt in an opponent’s head is of equal value to owning that self-confidence. We all know how Djokovic was able to get into Nadal’s head last season and reel-off six consecutive victories in ATP finals on three different surfaces. That kind of dominance goes a long way into determining the final outcome of a match between two foes and getting an edge early-on is what all of these guys are hoping for.

Djokovic has already sent that opening message to his opponents with a strong result in Abu Dhabi. After needing three sets to defeat Gael Monfils, he thrashed Federer 6-2, 6-1 and then beat David Ferrer in the finals by the exact same dominating score. Lookout everybody, because Novak came ready to play.

Federer will hope to shake-off the loss to Djokovic and then Nadal in Abu Dhabi and instead look back to his impressive 17-0 finish to the 2011 season where he won three consecutive tournaments. Still, his early defeats to Djokovic and Nadal can’t make him feel great.

With Federer and Nadal playing in Doha and Murray in Brisbane this week, we’ll see who is ready to join Djokovic as an early front-runner prior to the January 16th start date in Melbourne. Regardless of what players of any ranking say to the press, the importance of week one is something we cannot deny.

JUSTINE HENIN MAKES TRIUMPHANT RETURN

Justine Henin made a triumphant return to the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour in Brisbane on Monday with a 7-5, 7-5 win over second seeded Nadia Petrova.

In her first competitive match since retiring eighteen months ago, Henin showed no signs of rust as she advanced against an opponent she has dominated 11-2 in their career head-to-head meetings.

Henin also defeated Petrova last month in an exhibition match in Cairo by a score of 7-5, 6-2, so the result should come as no surprise.

The crafty Henin only lost five points on her first serve in the opening set and broke Petrova at 5-5. She would later close out the frame with an ace.

In the second set Petrova staked an early 2-0 lead before Henin fought back and again broke at 5-5 to march towards victory.

Petrova seemed to take the defeat in stride and had nothing but praise for Henin in her post-match press conference.

“I think she is a better player than before she retired. She’s more aggressive,” Petrova said. “Previously, she was more of a clay court player, but now I see her a hardcourt player as well. She’s certainly playing high level of tennis.”

Personally, I would be embarrassed as a professional tennis player to lose to someone who has been away from the game for a year and a half. Henin however is not just any returning player. The Belgian has won 7 Grand Slams, an Olympic Gold as well as 41 other WTA titles in her career. At only 27 years old, there is still plenty left in the tank both physically and emotionally for Henin.

“I feel better today than when I retired, that’s for sure,” Henin said. “Better emotionally, mentally, better with myself—and that makes a big difference that I will enjoy being on the tour again.”

Under normal circumstances, a win over a top-twenty player like Petrova after such a sustained absence from the game would garner more attention and praise. While many eyes are on Henin, the bar has been set high by her compatriot Kim Clijsters. Winning a couple of rounds will not suffice and anything short of a title in the near future may be deemed a disappointment by some – a fact that would have seemed ridiculous before Clijsters’ incredible run at Flushing Meadows in August.

The comparisons to Clijsters are inevitable and not simply because of their shared Belgian heritage. Both took approximately the same amount of time away from the game and both are former top level players who have enjoyed Grand Slam success. The immediate returns that Clijsters enjoyed during the summer spoke volumes about the immense talent that she possesses. As much, if not more, will be expected from Henin.

Henin now advances to the second round where she will face qualifier Sesil Karatantcheva.