Tuesday, February 11, 2014
Big Four going their separate ways
By Kamakshi Tandon
They gathered together at the Australian Open, but since then the Big Four have been doing their own thing, from rehab to Davis Cup to vacation. They've also scattered in the rankings -- though Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic remain No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, Andy Murray has fallen to No. 6 and Roger Federer to No. 8. But they remain the most closely followed players in tennis, so here's a look at what they've been up to as they prepare to return to tournament play over the next week or two.
After nearly a year without injury interruptions, Nadal again experienced physical problems at the Australian Open -- most significantly when his back acted up partway through the men's final against Stanislas Wawrinka. Though it severely hampered his play during much of the second and third sets, medical examinations later showed the problem was only a strain that would recover with a few days' rest.
Since then, the world No. 1 has also revealed how difficult he found the situation. "I knew I had no chance of winning, but I had no intention of retiring,” Nadal said to a Spanish radio station last week. “It was the worst hour and a half that I have spent on a tennis court," he said, adding that the loss had lingered longer than most.
Nadal resumed physical training last Tuesday and was scheduled to begin hitting again Thursday. Later that day, however, he announced that he was pulling out of this week's event in Buenos Aires because of a stomach virus. "It makes it impossible for me to arrive with the adequate preparation to compete in such an important and demanding tournament," he said in a video message.
He is still entered in the inaugural Rio event next week.
Though his start to this season has been disrupted, Nadal continues to receive accolades for his remarkable achievements last season, when he won two of the three Grand Slams he played, a record-tying five Masters events and reached the final in 14 of 17 tournaments. Those achievements saw Nadal awarded for sporting excellence at the annual Mundo Deportivo Gala, following similar recognition in 2007 and 2008. Last year, Nadal was voted the best Spanish athlete ever by readers of Spanish sporting newspaper Marca.
Although Nadal has been making headlines for pulling out of a tournament, Federer caused an even bigger stir by making a surprise appearance in one. As usual, the 17-time Grand Slam champ had implied he would be skipping the first round of Davis Cup, having played at that stage only once since 2004. But a day before Switzerland was due to take on Serbia in the team competition, news broke had Federer would be joining his new fellow Grand Slam champ Wawrinka and the rest of the team for the contest. "Look who I found in Novi Sad ..." Wawrinka wrote on Twitter alongside a photo of him, Federer and team captain Severin Luthi shortly after Federer's participation had been made public.
Wawrinka had known in advance that Federer would be there, having been involved in the discussions during the days leading up to the tie. For most, however, it was a surprise. The story goes that at the airport, Serbia's team captain approached a recently arrived visitor and told him he looked remarkably like Roger Federer, only to discover that he was talking to the tennis legend himself.
It all culminated in Switzerland posting an easy win against the Serbs, who were missing Djokovic and their next two highest-ranked players. Federer then announced he would also take part in the quarterfinal tie against Kazakhstan in April, strengthening the impression that he has fully committed to his country's Davis Cup campaign this year. His return, combined with the emergence of Wawrinka as a Grand Slam force, means the Swiss team is now a heavy favorite to lift the Cup for the first time.
After an exhilarating but exhausting month, Wawrinka pulled out of this week's event in Rotterdam with a leg injury, while Federer is scheduled to be back on court at Dubai in two weeks' time.
Had Djokovic also been playing for the Serbs against Switzerland, it would have been a blockbuster tie. But like Federer, Djokovic had announced his intention to skip the tie, and unlike Federer, did not change his mind. It was an understandable decision. Even with Djokovic, the undermanned Serbs would have been underdogs, and he also took part in last year's November final when the team suffered a frustrating loss to the Czech Republic.
But he kept himself occupied in the meantime. After being upset in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open by Wawrinka, the Serb headed for the hills -- or rather, the mountains. An avid skier, Djokovic hit the slopes in southern Serbia after returning from Down Under, and judging from these photos, he had a lot more success than he did in Australia. The Serb also paid a visit to a childhood court, posting a picture that showed scattered marks on the walls from the days of the Belgrade bombings. And when a snowstorm hit northern Serbia, leaving cars stuck roadside, he delivered supplies to stranded passengers. All in a few days' vacation for the world No. 2.
It looks like he may have even bigger off-court plans for the rest of the year. Last week, Djokovic also appeared on a Serbian talk show, where he suggested he and fiancée Jelena Ristic may be getting married shortly. "Jelena, enjoy it while you can. In a couple of months you will be changing your last name to Djokovic," he said.
On court, Djokovic has resumed training in Monte Carlo with his longtime coach Marian Vajda. Boris Becker, who is now coaching Djokovic at tournaments, does not appear to be present. The Serb's next outing -- like Federer -- is expected to be in Dubai.
Meanwhile, scratch the wedding announcement for Murray. The Scot offhandedly mentioned during a Twitter Q&A that he and longtime girlfriend Kim Sears would be getting married after Wimbledon, and then quickly had to clarify he had only been joking. Other questions Murray was asked included whether he ate the grass after winning Wimbledon last year (“No, I smoked it,” he replied) and how often he's wanted to kill Nadal and Federer (“It's a daily occurrence,” was the answer).
Later, he posted, "3 things ... I don't smoke grass, I'm not getting married (yet) and I don't want to kill Rafael Nadal."
The impromptu session had been in honor of Murray defeating Davis Cup teammate James Ward 8-1 in Pro Evo, the soccer video game for PlayStation. Clearly, Ward bounced back quickly from that humiliating defeat. In the Davis Cup tie between Great Britain and the U.S., then-world No. 175 Ward beat No. 45 Sam Querrey -- a victory that, along with Murray's two singles wins, secured Britain the tie. It also saved Murray from perhaps having to play doubles during the tie, a welcome respite for someone starting their return from back surgery at the beginning of this season.
Murray had also been worried about how his back would feel playing on clay so soon after Australian Open hard courts. But it must have held up well because soon after he added another tournament to his schedule by taking a wild card into this week's event in Rotterdam. His entry helped boost the tournament field following Wawrinka's withdrawal.
Murray is also scheduled to play two weeks later in Acapulco, which switches to hard courts beginning this year.