The old adage warning us that while the cat’s away the mice will play is never more relevant in pro tennis than in February. Most of the top players have fallen silent after dominating the headlines at the Australian Open, but tournaments are still there to be won, and there’s money to be made, plus rankings points to collect.
If Grand Slam tennis is a lavish feast, the events in February and early March constitute a tapas bar. There’s all kinds of interesting stuff to digest, some of it relevant to the big combined events to come along shortly, some of it not. February is, contrary to the common perception, a colorful month. It’s a little wacky, but awfully satisfying if you can appreciate the talents of, say, Daniela Hantuchova (she won at Pattaya) or Ivo Karlovic (the king of Delray) or even Kim Clijsters.
Yes, “Aussie Kim” was with us once again, albeit as a last-minute substitute at Antwerp, where Carla Suarez Navarro was unable to play the final a few weeks ago because of a neck injury.
Clijsters, a much-loved former No. 1, laced them up once again to play an exhibition against the healthy finalist, Andrea Petkovic. It was not a difficult decision: Clijsters is the tournament director of Antwerp, and her first reaction to the news that Suarez Navarro was unable to play was a panic attack. “Before I knew it, I was playing,” she told reporters later.
Clijsters, now 31, won the showcase 5-3. Making light of the result, Petkovic quipped during the trophy presentation ceremony, "I hope you don't take any offense, Kim, but I'm glad you are done playing on tour.”
For the local Clijsters crowd, it went over big, but you have to wonder if a fan who paid full freight for the finals ticket felt satisfied.
That was perhaps the most unusual February moment, but some others also tested our credulity -- chief among them Rafael Nadal’s loss to Fabio Fognini. It was Nadal’s first loss in a clay-court semifinal in 53 matches spanning 12 years, although David Ferrer, Nicolas Almagro and Novak Djokovic might not be all that impressed. All of them have logged clay-court wins over Nadal in the past year. They just didn’t accomplish it in the semis.
Poor Rafa might have known better than to test the waters in February, for the month really does belong to the have-nots -- or have-somes. Ferrer may be the ultimate “have-some,” and true to form, he popped up to end any designs Fognini had on the Rio title after his rousing upset of Nadal. At roughly the same time, west of Rio, 29-year-old Pablo Cuevas of Uruguay was in the process of winning just the third title of his career, at Sao Paolo.
And how about Gilles Simon? The speedy, 30-year-old Frenchman tripped up No. 4 Andy Murray at Rotterdam and followed up his semifinal appearance there with a win over Gael Monfils in Marseilles. That one was a corker, decided in a third-set tiebreaker. February might not be a month that evokes reflections on bitter rivalries, or even intense and desperate set-tos. Yet the French players have remarkable enthusiasm for the indoor events played on home soil in either February or the fall.
Richard Gasquet won his second title at Montpellier this February. Simon has won four of his 12 career titles at Marseilles (two) and another French town, Metz (two). Monfils has two titles at Montpellier and one at Metz.
What happens to these fellas when the French Open comes around is a subject best left for another occasion.
Two Grand Slam contenders did impose a modicum of order on the ATP events. In the most significant February ATP event (until this week in Dubai), ATP No. 7 Stan Wawrinka frustrated No. 8 Tomas Berdych in the Rotterdam final. And Kei Nishikori did a fine job upholding his top seeding in Memphis. All three of these men are legitimate Grand Slam contenders who, unlike the Federers and Djokovics of this world, can’t afford the luxury of taking off the month of February. All of them did due diligence in the past few weeks.
On the WTA side of the fence at Rio, Sara Errani also justified her top seeding. Simona Halep, who’s grown proficient at cleaning up at smaller events, bagged the most prestigious title on offer with a succession of quality wins in Dubai over Ekaterina Makarova, Caroline Wozniacki and, in the final, Karolina Pliskova.
Perhaps fittingly, three of the winners so far in February also won titles a year ago at this time: Halep, Ferrer and Nishikori. Halep is No. 3 in the WTA world rankings, Nishikori is No. 5, and Ferrer is hanging in at No. 9 -- but he’s a Grand Slam finalist who has been ranked as high as No. 3.
Even among mice, quality will tell.