On one hand, an innovative format and new horizons for tennis. On the other, a huge jackpot for players but a potentially complicated start to the 2015 season. A lot has been said about the International Tennis Premier League (IPTL), and both sides were not necessarily incompatible. So what are the consequences? We looked at the southern tour and reviewed the performance of those who worked overtime in December.
The first tournaments of the year had drawn a trend. The first week of the Australian Open accentuated it even more: in early 2015, it doesn't feel so good to have participated in the ITPL, this gigantic show exhibition played between the Philippines, Singapore, India and the United Arab Emirates in December. Of the sixteen professional players involved in the event, a clear majority of them had a disappointing start to the season. Chance or consequence?
For some, the causal link seems obvious. After an arm injury last fall, Marin Cilic admitted it honestly in the press release announcing his withdrawal for the Australian Open: such an expedition to the other side of the world, even for an exhibition, didn't quite make sense with a traditional recovery protocol. "The doctors warned me about the fact that my injury could get worse." The titleholder of the US Open then made his choice... Just like Jo-Wilfried also affected persistently by an arm injury since the last quarter of 2014. After sacrificing the Southern stage, both hope to return to the tour in February for the European indoor tour.
Federer ready for the revision of the 1000 miles
Others have been able to play the various tournaments at the antipodes, with more or less success. Some then gradually switched off: Roger Federer, winner in Brisbane of his 83rd professional title and of 1,000th game, disappeared from the third round in Melbourne, against a player, Andreas Seppi, to whom he only left a set in their ten previous meetings. During the week before the Australian Open, Pierre Paganini, physical trainer of the Swiss, said that his long 2014 season - concluded with a late victory in Davis Cup by BNP Paribas - and commitment in the IPTL could have upset the winter preparation of the Basel clock. At 33, Federer has naturally not been able to support such a pace... which he carefully avoided when he was at the zenith of his career.
Caroline Wozniacki also started well, qualified for the finals of the first tournament on her agenda, in Auckland. But then, everything deteriorated: defeated in the final of the New Zealand tournament by Venus Williams, the Dane then withdrew in the first round in Sydney, because of a wrist inflammation that has been affecting her in recent months. And in Melbourne, she disappeared in the second round, swept away by the "fury" of Victoria Azarenka, back from injury, fresh physically and mentally.
The toe replacing the wrist in the role of the weak link, Ana Ivanovic showed the same curve of declining performance over the southern tour, marked by a good final in Brisbane for her new season, before disappearing to the general surprise from the first round of the Australian Open, defeated by the Czech Lucie Hradecka.
Brand new coach of Gael Monfils, Jan de Witt also had to deal with a player "who came back very tired from his three weeks in Asia." Then the French pulled out his "personal reasons" card to justify his absence to all the preparation tournaments of the first Grand Slam tournament of the year, before losing in the second round in Melbourne.
Male and female players who are ranked further away in the global hierarchy, early defeats of Daniela Hantuchova, Kirsten Flipkens, Kristina Mladenovic and Lleyton Hewitt are not, strictly speaking, claps of thunder, but their accumulation is not trivial: three tournaments played, three eliminations in the second round for the Slovak; three tournaments played, only one match won for the Belgian and the French; and finally only one match won for two tournaments played for the Australian.
Novak and Serena, question marks or getting things straights
A rather gloomy southern track records then for most participants to the ITPL. However, there are exceptions, starting with Andy Murray and Tomas Berdych. The Scot has opted for a smooth recovery that obviously paid off, since he won the Abu Dhabi exhibition before a fantastic performance in the first week of the Australian Open. The Czech, big "boy" of the tour, rarely injured, has on his side reached the final in Doha and has not fallen short of pace on the courts of Melbourne Park. As for Maria Sharapova, her beginning to the season is almost flawless, since she won in Brisbane and is still competing in the second week in Melbourne... except that she came two match points away to join Federer in the elephant graveyard after a match against Alexandra Panova in the second round! Finally, the Australian Nick Kyrgios is a special case: after a withdrawal in the Hopman Cup because of a back injury incurred in late 2014, eliminated again in the first round in Sydney, the apprentice champion has recovered dramatically in Melbourne, where he targeted a second quarter-final in Grand Slam, six months after Wimbledon.
To close this overview: two unknowns - and not the least: Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams. Not really at their advantage for their trial run in 2015, both world number 1 are still running in Melbourne, and that's the point. The Serb landed in his favourite Grand Slam with in his suitcases a withdrawal in the final of the Abu Dhabi exhibition, feverish, followed by a defeat in the quarterfinals of Doha against Ivo Karlovic. As for the American, although the Hopman Cup is not an official competition, her results in Perth can only intrigue: a coffee break against Flavia Pennetta while she has lost the first set on a big zero (final score: 0/6 6/3 6/0), a severe defeat against Eugenie Bouchard (6/2 6/1), a tough victory against Lucie Safarova on the tiebreak in the third set and finally her first career loss against Agnieszka Radwanska.
So even if the Hopman Cup doesn’t count for the world ranking, or for the WTA ranking for that matter, it was still quite a surprise to see the World No. 1 being so generous with her opponents. Anyway for such champions, only great titles matter. And next week's trophy will be the only thing able to reduce this to a simple anecdote or, conversely to sanction their participation in an exhibition definitely unlike any other.