Sunday, 13 January 2013

The Day Before the Big Event

A week ahead of the first Grand Slam of the season, and most of the top players pass on the chance to lift a trophy in favour of conditioning themselves to the courts, the timezone, the temperature and the media blitz in preparation for the pinnacle event of the month.

5 matches in Auckland - the best prep for Melbourne?
Not so David Ferrer, who at #5 in the world (and seeded fourth for the Australian Open in Rafael Nadal's absence) opted to take a detour to New Zealand and compete in the Heineken Open in Auckland.  Facing Philipp Kohlschreiber in the final, Ferrer took some time to warm into the match, with the German's backhand proving a devastating down-the-line shot for large periods of the first set.  But with the score 41 in Kohlschreiber's favour, the Spaniard managed to claw back the deficit before pushing the first set into the tie-breaker, where a solitary point against serve was enough for him to seal the opening set.  With the German falling away in the second, unable to consistently find the range that had blasted him into his early lead, Ferrer made swift work of the remainder of the match, eventually running out a 76(5) 61 winner to raise his first trophy of the season.

Ferrer's decision to play in New Zealand obviously paid off in terms of the actual event.  Defending his title there, he has now clocked up an impressive 4 titles at the championship, equalling Roy Emerson's tally back in the 60s.  However, if his presence at the ATP 250 tournament and the 5 matches needed to lift the title fatigues him or dents his opportunities at the bigger, more high profile event starting on Monday in Melbourne, then it will surely be seen as a riskthat shouldn't have been.

Ferrer has frequently played winningly at the smaller events.  Indeed in 2012, he was the most titled player in the ATP, bagging seven trophies across the course of the season, one more than both Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer.  But until the Paris Masters, he hadn't won at a tournament above the 500 level.  The scheduling of that event, though, meant that the top 3 were conspicuously absent from the business end of Paris when they channel-hopped to London in prep for the World Tour Finals.

However, with this year's Australian Open having a giant Rafael Nadal-sized hole in the draw, which many players will be looking to capitalise on to secure a deep run in the Slam, Ferrer may have been wiser to focus on that opportunity rather than condition himself on a 250 event.  For although he has made one semi-final and one quarter-final run at the event before, the players who have always stopped him have been those directly above him.  And even though he defeated Nadal in 2011 on the way to the semi-final, he didn't have the game to take the next round away from Andy Murray.  Perhaps working out the strategy to defeat these players would have been the better exercise to put himself in the best possible place for a shot at the elusive Slam tournament victory. Ultimately though, there may be a realisation that Ferrer will always be the nearly man, whose current gameplan will never quite be good enough to beat a succession of Federer, Murray and Djokovic.  Perhaps the time to rework the gameplan has passed for Ferrer, who may not be able to strategise a way to win a Grand Slam with the immovable top 3 in his path, and he must instead settle for the lesser accolades when they're not there.

Elsewhere in the ATP Bernard Tomic came through a tough three-setter against South Africa's Kevin Anderson to pop his title virginity with victory in Sydney.  The young Australian then proceeded to inflate his chances at the ensuing Slam with some hot air, including a dig at his potential Round 3 opponent, Roger Federer.

Finally, another maiden champion was crowned as Elena Vesnina took tournament accolades in Hobart.  The #47 ranked Russian denied Mona Barthel her second successive Hobart trophy with a 63 64 victory.  It was the seventh final that Vesnina had competed in, but a solid week in Australia which included a semi-final defeat of the hotly-tipped young American Sloane Stephens, made this one the first she saw through to victory.

Image from AAP via 3News New Zealand

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