Turn on a tennis tournament sometime during the dreary month of February, and more likely than not you will see a blue court under artificial lighting with players who end matches quickly behind cascades of unreturnable serves. But then there’s the odd chance, especially this year with Nadal’s comeback, that you will turn on a tennis tournament and see—red clay. Outdoors. With actual rallies.
The South American clay season often raises eyebrows in its position between marquee hard courts in Australia and North America. An anomaly as a procession of indoor hard tournaments unfold through Europe and the United States this month, these tournaments lack intuitive logic from a fan’s perspective and have caused many to wonder whether they would benefit from shifting to hard courts. If they did, skeptics argue, they would lure a more balanced field of players rather than the usual group of clay specialists who pounce on them so eagerly. Moreover, the results there actually would become relevant to the mega-Masters 1000 tournaments ahead in Indian Wells and Miami, for barometers of hard-court form they are not at the moment. Perhaps less persuasive but still credible is the thought that change itself can inject new life into a tournament, generating publicity that adds energy to it and bringing it to the attention of the sport’s international audience. (Somewhat like what Nadal did this year. Until he announced his comeback schedule, many fans probably did not even remember the order in which these events unfold.)
Of course, Ion Tiriac plunged his tournament into a great blue sea of change last year that illustrated the distinction between good and bad publicity, or perhaps that the latter exists. And there are plenty of other reasons why the South American tournaments should defy the pressures of conformity to remain paradises of dirt devils. Clay specialists they may be, but players like Ferrer, Almagro, and Wawrinka (all in the Buenos Aires 250 this week) showcase excellent talents that can entertain anyone with a true passion for and knowedge of the sport. By contrast, the more prestigious 500 tournament in Memphis this week attracted nobody more scintillating than Cilic and the usual parade of towering servers from North America, unmatched in monotony by any other type of player. Even assuming that a tournament would benefit from their inclusion, it is far from clear that changing to hard courts would convince many of these players to take the long trip south. Appearance fees, local connections, physical condition, and current career goals generally drive scheduling decisions in the sub-Masters 1000 tiers for the marquee names. Nor should one underestimate the appeal of a sunny South American vacation when much of the Northern Hemisphere lies shrouded deep in winter, something irrelevant to the surface.
For fans, meanwhile, that South American sun can come as an invigorating jolt of energy, much like the Australian summer that enlivens our post-Christmas doldrums. The saturated colors and warm light that flickers onto our televisions and desktops in a sense presages the springtime experience of Indian Wells and Miami more than do the sterile arenas of February’s indoor hard-court tournaments. Diversity stands as one of the sport’s great strengths, and playing tournaments on two different surfaces in the same week bolsters it no less than playing tournaments on three different continents in the same week.
Finally, there seems something to be said for adhering to local traditions and preserving ties to each region’s distinctive history. Hard courts have come to dominate the sport and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. The “if you can’t beat them, join them” theory clearly does not apply to tennis, though, for the specialty surfaces that remain in Europe arguably have enhanced their prestige by becoming less common. People are drawn to the unusual and the unfamiliar, which provides an independent reason for the South American tournaments to keep the one key element that distinguishes them from others during the same span.
That said, those eager to import hard courts to South America will look forward to the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, an experiment that may cause some to consider embracing the surface more enthusiastically. Seeing hard courts in this region, though, may look even odder than seeing clay courts in February.
Buenos Aires tennis
While none of the ATP tournaments this week enjoys a field of the pedigree that the WTA has produced in Dubai, the 250 tournament in Marseille features every member of the top ten’s lower half. We start with that event in our weekly preview, following it with the technically more significant tournament in Memphis and the latest edition of the South American clay swing.
Marseille: Recovered from his Davis Cup marathon earlier this month, world #6 Berdych claims the top seed in this overstuffed draw. At his best on these fast surfaces, he still cannot overlook the second-round challenge of Gulbis, who defeated him at Wimbledon last year. An intriguing collection of unpredictable threats rounds out the quarter from Rotterdam finalist Benneteau, who upset Federer there, to the notorious Rosol and the rising Janowicz. After breaking through on an indoor hard court in Paris last year, the latter has struggled to sustain his momentum in 2013. Like Berdych, Janowicz must start the tournament in crisp form to survive his early challenges.
Somewhat less dangerous is the second quarter, where Tipsarevic would reach the quarterfinals after facing only a qualifier. The fourth-seeded Serb will have welcomed this good fortune, considering an inconsistent start to the season that included a retirement at the Australian Open and an opening-round loss as the second seed in an indoor 250 this month. Starting 2013 by winning fifteen of his first sixteen matches, by contrast, Gasquet became the first man to claim two titles this year in a surprising development that vindicated his top-ten status. A second-round meeting with compatriot Monfils would intrigue, although the latter continues to rebuild his rhythm in a return from a long absence.
Two of the most notable figures in the third quarter lost their Rotterdam openers last week, one surprisingly and one less so. While few expected Tsonga to stumble against Sijsling, familiar sighs issued from Australia when Tomic reverted to his wayward self. The Aussie eyes a more accommodating draw this time, though, for higher-ranked opponnents Klizan and Paire will not overwhelm him. A potential opener against Davydenko might cause concern among Tsonga’s fans on an indoor hard court, but the Russian has slumped significantly since reaching the Doha final to start the season. In a quarterfinal, Tsonga and Tomic could engage in a battle of seismic serving that would test the focus of both.
Fresh from a strong effort in Rotterdam arrives the second-seeded Del Potro to a more challenging draw. Rebounding from his Australian Open debacle, he held serve relentlessly on indoor hard courts last week and may need to do so again if he opens against home hope Michael Llodra. A former semifinalist at the Paris Indoors, Llodra upset Tipsarevic in Montpellier two weeks ago and always relishes playing on this surface. Less formidable is the Frenchman whom Del Potro could meet in the quarterfinals, for Simon lacks the shot-making ability to thrust the Argentine out of his comfort zone.
Final: Berdych vs. Del Potro
Memphis: The most important tournament of the week only on paper, this sequel to San Jose often features many of the same players. This year departs somewhat from that trend, for top-seeded Cilic and fifth-seeded Nishikori arrive in North America for the first time this year. Between them stand Zagreb finalist and Memphis defending champion Melzer, who could repeat his final there against Cilic, and Tsonga’s Rotterdam nemesis, Igor Sijsling. Hampered by injury during the Australian Open, Nishikori aims to regain his groove before tournaments at Indian Wells and Miami where he could shine. By contrast, Cilic hopes to build upon claiming his home tournament in Zagreb for the third time. When they met at last year’s US Open, the latter prevailed in four sets.
Impressive in Davis Cup but less so in San Jose, Querrey looks to produce a more compelling serving performance as the fourth seed in a section without any giants of his size. Compatriot Steve Johnson, who upset Karlovic last week, may fancy his chances against the mercurial Dolgopolov in the second round. Withdrawing from San Jose with injury, the seventh seed may find the courts too fast for an entertaining style that requires time to improvise. If Dolgopolov should meet Querrey, though, he could disrupt the rhythm on which the American relies.
Somewhat like Querrey, Isner achieved modest success in San Jose before subsiding meekly in the semifinals. Since he missed much of the previous weeks with a knee injury, the matches accumulated there should serve him well in a tournament where he has finished runner-up to Querrey before. The tenacious returning of Hewitt may test Isner’s fortitude, although the former has not left an impact on his recent tournaments. Also in this section is the faltering Ryan Harrison, the victim of some challenging draws but also unable to show much evidence of improvement despite his visible will to win. The home crowd might free Harrison from the passivity that has cost him lately.
The undisputed master of San Jose, Raonic moves from the top of the draw there to the bottom of the draw here. His massive serve-forehand combinations will meet a similar style, albeit more raw, in American wildcard Jack Sock when the tournament begins. Raonic can anticipate a rematch of the San Jose final against Haas in the Memphis quarterfinals, while the lefty serve of Feliciano Lopez should pose an intriguing upset threat. Since Melzer rode similar weapons to last year’s title here, this fellow veteran could surprise the draw as well.
Final: Querrey vs. Raonic
Buenos Aires: After Nadal had dominated the South American headlines during the previous two weeks, another Spaniard attempts to follow in his footsteps. Now the top-ranked man from his country, world #4 Ferrer will face the same task that Rafa did in Sao Paulo when he meets either Berlocq or Nalbandian in the second round. Troubled by Nalbandian before, he will feel more comfortable against the unreliable Fognini in a more traditional battle of clay specialists a round later. In the second quarter continue two surprise stories of the past two weeks, Horacio Zeballos and Martin Alund. While the former won his first career title by toppling Nadal in Vina del Mar, the latter won a set from the Spaniard in a semifinal at Sao Paulo—the first tournament where he had won an ATP match. The highest seed in this quarter, Bellucci, imploded on home soil last week but did defeat Ferrer in Monte Carlo last year.
Framing the lower half are the ATP’s two most notable hard-luck stories of the season. Two days after Wawrinka had lost his epic five-setter to Djokovic, Almagro allowed a two-set lead to slip away against Ferrer in Melbourne after serving for the match three times. That trend continued for both men in February, when Wawrinka lost the longest doubles match in tennis history and Almagro dropped a third-set tiebreak to Nalbandian despite serving 28 aces. The Swiss #2 faces a mildly intriguing test to start the week in Paolo Lorenzi, and fellow Italian Simone Bolelli aims to continue his surge from a semifinal appearance in Sao Paulo. Less imposing is the path ahead of Almagro, although the unseeded Albert Montanes can score the occasional headline victory on clay.
Final: Ferrer vs. Wawrinka