Afternoon all, and welcome to February. February is a strange month. The excitement over the festive season is well and truly behind us; its only lasting memory the unwelcome extra roll of flab around my belly. And while the days are getting longer, the weather is so brutally cold and grim that it feels a bit premature to start looking forward to summer.
Of course, I am currently living in Oaxaca, the city of eternal spring, so I have no such problems this year. But you get my point. February, in calendrical terms, is a bit “meh”.
The good news for everyone – in particular those of you in North America and Northern Europe suffering lockdowns and snow-ins – is that tennis is back. At least, it was. After all of three days of competitive action in Melbourne, the schedule for Thursday’s play across the six Australian Open warm up events was cancelled after a hotel worker returned a positive coronavirus test. Encouragingly, Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews stated that there is “no impact” on the upcoming Grand Slam, although an announcement is expected later today regarding the prospect of play over the weekend. Fingers crossed.
It’s hard not to feel sorry for the roughly 500 players and staff who will now be returning to their hotel rooms for an uncertain period of time to complete a second period of quarantine. I know, many of them are multi-millionaires and they should consider themselves lucky to be able to compete at all considering the current state of the pandemic. But having started getting back to vaguely normal activity – ie playing tennis – after spending two-weeks confined to their rooms on arrival in Australia, this news must be a kick in the proverbial groin.
Despite this latest hiccup, however, a number of interesting narratives have already started to develop over the first few days’ play in Melbourne. After the huge success of last year’s inaugural ATP Cup – many said it was the stand-out event of 2020 – the tournament has returned for its second edition. And while the crowds are smaller and thus not quite as boisterous, the players nevertheless seem to be relishing the opportunity to play in at least partially-fully stadiums again.
Two teams – Italy and Russia – have already qualified for the semifinals. With three players in the top 20, it is perhaps not surprising to see the Russians doing so well. The Italians, meanwhile, continue to underline their potential to become a tennis superpower over the next few years. While teenage sensations Jannik Sinner and Lorenzo Musetti are involved in different competitions, old stalwart Fabio Fognini and in particular Matteo Berrettini have been flying the il Ticolore flag with aplomb.
Berrettini has probably been the standout player so far. The 24-year-old cruised past Austria’s world number three Dominic Thiem for the loss of just six games on the opening day, before repeating the feat – and scoreline – against France’s Gael Monfils. Both were hugely impressive performances. The world number 10, who stands at 6″4in, used supremely powerful hitting off both wings to dominate his opponents (neither of whom lack in the strength department). I must admit I wasn’t convinced that Berrettini would repeat his achievements in 2019, when he reached the US Open semifinals and ended the year in the top-eight. But judging by his form this week, you can add his name to the increasingly lengthy list of Italian tennis’ “ones to watch”.
One nation that will not be taking part in the tournament’s latter stages is Canada. Given the huge amount of talent in their ranks, that is a surprise. World number 12 Dennis Shapovalov lost in two tight sets to Novak Djokovic before falling in a third-set tiebreak to Germany’s Sasha Zverev last night. I watched both matches and can’t decide quite what they mean for Shapovalov. With a huge forehand, a stylish one-hander and Nadal-like intensity, the 21-year-old is such an exciting player to watch. But there remain flaws in his game that need ironing-out if he is to break into the top five. His leftie serve is smoother than Sean Connery in a tuxedo, and yet he still struggles with his second delivery: last year he averaged more than 5,9 double faults per match, the second-highest on tour (behind Benoit Paire). It will be fascinating to see him trying to fulfill his other-wordly potential over the coming months and years.
Elsewhere, Australian maverick Nick Kyrgios returned to action after almost a year off due to the pandemic in one of the ATP 250 events taking place at Melbourne Park. The 25-year-old refused to play for five minutes in protest after the umpire issued him a time violation on serve. COVID-19 has changed practically everything about the world as we know it, but apparently Nick Krygios is not one of those things. He should give Mario Balotelli a call to see if he can send him one of his “Why Always Me?” shirts. I can’t help but feel like the two would get along handsomly.
Finally, it’s also worth noting that Rafa Nadal pulled out of his ATP Cup match with a back problem, placing a cloud of doubt over his fitness for next week. With Roger Federer already missing from the Australian Open draw, it would be a shame if Nadal also had to pull out.
I think that just about covers it from the men’s side so far. There are, of course, a number of women’s tournaments going on simultaneously, but I am struggling to keep up with that. There is – somewhat incredibly – no official WTA app available for download after the ATP and the WTA decided to discontinue their brilliant live scores platform in December, and I now have no idea what’s going on with the women’s game. Sort it out, please.
Right, I’ll leave it there for today. Have a good week everyone and I’ll be back here on Friday with a preview to rugby’s Six Nations, which gets underway on Saturday. Until then.
—What have you made of tennis’ return so far? Are there any big stories I missed out? Let me know in the comments section below!—