More of the Same for the ATP in 2012?

I’m back!
Like the guys on the ATP Tour, I took some time off to recharge my writing batteries and prepare for the upcoming season.

And my first order of business is to reflect on the pre-2012 start of the new season with the exo in Abu Dhabi, which featured Novak Djokovic, Rafa Nadal, Roger Federer, David Ferrer, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Gael Monfils. Monfils notwithstanding, this was a fairly high-powered way to start the new year even for an exhibition.

The event started on Dec. 29 and finished on Dec. 31. For Nadal and Ferrer, that meant perhaps one week to recover before the resumption of training for this event. Novak had a bit more time off, but after the beating his body took during the 2011 season would it be enough?

Roger would have seemed the odds-on favorite to take this one after a brilliant end to the 2011 season. But the script was again turned on its’ head when Ferrer knocked out Rafa and Novak knocked out Roger, both with cakewalk wins. Novak went on to exact a beatdown on Ferrer to collect his first “title” for the year as well as a huge paycheck of $250,000 for winning three matches. Not bad, huh?!

Moreover, there’s a lot one could potentially read from these results as the 2012 ATP season officially kicks off in Qatar. For Monfils and Tsonga there isn’t much one could say after only one match. For the other guys it’s a different story altogether.

Rafa and Roger received first round byes. I’m not sure how they received first round byes and Novak did not, but that was the case. Rafa beat lost to compatriot Ferrer in his “semifinal” match in straight sets 3 and 2. Roger lost to Novak by an even worse scoreline of 2 and 1. The losses can be excused a bit by the fact that it was both players’ first matches.

Granted, it’s always easy to lose to someone who already has their teeth into an event with matches under their belt. But those scorelines are concerning, no? (That’s my “New year” homage to Rafa) The good news for Rafa is that he was able to regroup and best Roger for the third place spot with a 6-1 7-5 victory. I’m not sure if there is a “good news” aspect to this event for Roger who finished the event with two losses.

After his triumphant fall campaign, it’s surprising that Roger would go down so easily to Novak. The only reasonable explanation would have to be that he didn’t care too much about the result…perhaps due to a great appearance fee. Or perhaps he was just caught off-guard by Novak’s level of play and wasn’t able to respond in kind before it quickly got away from him. Either way, Roger has too much pride for a 2 and 1 loss to feel good.

Rafa’s loss was more troubling I think. He has had virtually no off-season to let his body rest/repair, and even less time to train and fine-tune his game for his 2012 campaign to stop the bleeding against Novak. He lost to Ferrer at the Australian Open last January, and couldn’t feel too good about being bested again on a hard-court by David heading into the first major of the year.

Explanations could be many! It’s reported that Rafa has changed to a more head-heavy racquet in a bid to generate more pace, especially on his serves, to help him overcome Djokovic. Racquet changes are difficult for any player, and Rafa is no exception. At his best, Rafa is a creature of repetition and habit. He needs many hours on the court to feel good in his game for tournament battle. A racquet change with such a short training season can only complicate those preparations.

He’s okay with perhaps having less success at this part of the year with the racquet if it helps him in his long-term strategy. More troubling is his bothersome shoulder injury. Always one to downplay his issues, he says it is fine. But having already said that he is taking February off for more physical rest and time off, it must be troubling him more than he lets on.

Rafa beats his body down in the best of circumstances on the tour. In 2011 he played some of his most grueling matches ever (against Novak), starting with Indian Wells and Miami. The Miami match in particular was so tough that for once Rafa looked to be the one struggling on court instead of the other way around. Fast forward to the US Open and one of the hardest UFC/ATP matches ever contested for a major final, and there must be cause for concern about Rafa’s body and how it will affect the remaining length of his career.

A mention must be made that Andy Murray was not present at this event, so there wasn’t an opportunity to see the top 4 in preview mode for 2012. Hopefully Andy was working hard with new coach Ivan Lendl, preparing to step up his level of aggression on court. Lendl wasn’t a defensive-minded player. He aggressively went at his opponents. Maybe this will be the final step needed for Andy to break through from major contender to major champion.

For the rest of the guys at the top, Abu Dhabi seems to suggest more of the same: Novak winning, Rafa struggling, and Roger fighting to stay motivated. Both Rafa and Roger are playing in Qatar, the first official tournament of the year. That will be a great gauge of where we stand heading into Melbourne!

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