Stan Wawrinka was optimistic – even a week ago – about being about to return to action after knee surgery at the six-man exhibition in Abu Dhabi in 10 days.
On Wednesday, the Swiss star announced that he won’t be ready in time.
“Unfortunately I won’t be able to play in Abu Dhabi this year as I’m not ready yet to complete at this level. Together with my team, I’m working hard and we will do everything to be ready in time for the Australian Open” Wawrinka said in a statement.
“I’m sad that I won’t be able to play in front of the great fans at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship but I need to be patient and give my body the time it needs.”
Wawrinka didn’t enter any of the various warmup events before the big one in Melbourne. There were choices: Doha, Brisbane, Pune, Auckland or Sydney. But if he feels he’s ready, and wants matches, no doubt they’d be willing to give him a wild card.
It does seem likely that he will start straight up again at the Australian Open – assuming, again, that he is ready. The best-of-five set format is a higher threshold than a regular ATP Tour event.
Not everyone is going to be ready
Of all the top players who missed significant time in the second half of the season, Novak Djokovic seems the most ready to get started. The Serb has his new, full team by his side.
Canadian Milos Raonic already is in Melbourne and has a hit-and-giggle planned with fellow New Balance athlete Steve Smith (the Australian cricket captain) at Melbourne Park Thursday.
However, he also has pulled out of the Abu Dhabi event. That may mean something, or nothing. We shall see.
Raonic had planned to go straight from the weekend event to the ATP Tour event in Brisbane. (Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal plan to do this as well).
Murray completed a training block in Miami and returned home before he heads to Abu Dhabi.
Kei Nishikori, who is training at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., typically holds a media day for Japanese and other media around this time of the season, to kick off the new year.
At this point, there is no media day planned.
Nishikori plans to return in Brisbane the first week of January. But obviously that will depend – as with Wawrinka – on the state of his injured wrist as he returns from a long layoff.
As for Nadal, there are a few unsubstantiated murmurs out there. And it doesn’t appear – from the limited information you can get on the web, that he has practiced a ton as the Mallorcan looks after his knee.
So that’s a wait-and-see – for both Abu Dhabi, and the tournaments after that.
To replace Raonic and Wawrinka, the exhibition has drafted Kevin Anderson and Next-Gen star Andrey Rublev.
Anderson plans to play the ATP event in Pune, India the following week. Rublev is signed on for the one in nearby Doha.
The exhibition already already has the new roster up on its website, so clearly the organizers were prepared.
If you thought the women’s tennis season was over, apparently it’s never over.
How else could there be so many compelling storylines at a $100,000 ITF Pro Circuit event in Dubai, in the middle of December?
You wonder when some of these women found the time to have an off-season.
The cutoff for the original entry list of 24 players was inside the top 200. The top half-dozen of them are directly into the Australian Open, and the rest easily into the qualifying draw.
Why, then, are they playing the Al Habtoor Tennis Challenge in Dubai in mid-December?
Well, money’s a part of it for many, obviously. The winner’s share is $15,200; the runner up earns $8,100, and so on.
For someone like former world No. 7 Belinda Bencic, it’s making up for lost time.
Bencic is back
The 20-year-old from Switzerland was off the court nearly six months from April on after wrist surgery. Before that, recurring back issues had dropped her ranking outside the top 100.
She returned in mid-September with her ranking outside the top 300.
Bencic could have waited another few weeks and taken an injury-protected ranking (her ranking wasn’t great when she stopped, but it was a lot better than No. 312). But she chose to play. She’s gone 26-3 since her return.
Bencic dropped only one set in her first event back, a $100,000 ITF title win in Russia. She dropped just one set in winning 10 singles matches to take a pair of WTA 125K titles in Thailand. And that ensured she was able to squeeze back inside the top 100 just in time to meet the Australian Open singles entry deadline.
But instead of taking a break, she’s playing Dubai, and she’s in the semifinals after defeating Mihaela Buzarnescu Thursday.
“It’s the first time I’m doing it, actually. I would be here doing the preparation anyway and I have a tournament in front of my nose, so why wouldn’t I play it?” Bencic told Sport360.com. “I think it’s good because we can figure out how that works for the first time so we’ll see and until now it’s good and I’m enjoying it,” she said.
There are other WTA Tour players doing their pre-season in Dubai. Dominika Cibulkova (who hasn’t played since the end of September), Ons Jabeur (who has a new coach, former Heather Watson coach Diego Veronelli) and Maria Sakkari among them. But they aren’t playing.
Errani back with a vengeance
Bencic isn’t the only recognizable name in the tournament.
And if there’s a theme, it’s one of comebacks – from injury and, in the case of Sara Errani, from a falling ranking and a two-month doping suspension.
Errani, who also is in the quarter-finals, missed two months – from the week of the Rogers Cup in early August until her return in Tianjin, China the second week of October.
At that point, her ranking had fallen to No. 280. By qualifying and reaching the semifinals, she quickly lopped 100 spots off that number. She won a $60,000 ITF event the following week in China.
Clearly she also was hoping for a Bencic-like rise, so she wouldn’t have to play the qualifying in Australia. But it didn’t work out that way. Errani won just one match in her next three tournaments, including a pair of WTA 125K events.
And so, she’s also in Dubai, with a ranking of No. 143 but facing the prospect of qualifying in Australia, as she did successfully (as the 2012 French Open finalist) in Paris this spring. A year ago in Melbourne, she came in ranked No. 53.
Top seed out in first round
The No. 1 seed in Dubai this week was Timea Babos, currently ranked No. 56 in singles after finishing 2016 at No. 26.
Her singles ranking fell steadily all season, although she rallied late with finals appearances at small back-to-back WTA Tour events in Quebec City and Uzbekistan. But she played just two matches after the end of September, and lost both of them.
So there was plenty of time for physical work at home in Budapest. Babos has a heavy load early in the new season. She’s scheduled for Shenzhen, Hobart, the Australian Open, Taipei and then likely Fed Cup in Estonia.
A one-hander comes back
Russia’s Margarita Gasparyan made a little noise awhile back, in part because she’s one of the rare players on the WTA Tour with a onehanded backhand.
Just turned 23, she was out nearly a year and a half. Gasparyan retired in the second set of her first-round match at Wimbledon in 2016.
And she didn’t resurface until the first round of qualifying at the WTA Tour event in Moscow in mid-October of this year.
She was in the top 60 when she stopped, reaching a career high of No. 41 in February, 2016.
And then she had not one, not two but three surgeries on her knee. Nothing seemed to work. Until it finally came around.
Gasparyan will be a story to watch if she can round into form quickly. She received a wild card into the qualifying in Dubai and won two rounds before losing to Fiona Ferro of France in the final round.
Two years ago, she reached the round of 16 at the Australian Open. On a protected ranking, this will be her first trip back. She has entered the qualifying both in Auckland (even if her protected ranking would have earned her direct entry into the main draw) and Sydney.
Ajla Tomljanovic carrying on
The thing about tennis and shoulder surgeries is that unlike, say, baseball pitchers, players seem to have a heck of a time trying to come back to where they were – especially on the serve.
Maria Sharapova is a prime-time example of that. Canada’s Aleksandra Wozniak also has never even been close to the same.
Ajla Tomljanovic of Croatia (via Australia, via Boca Raton) is another player for whom the jury is still out. And she had a great serve.
Tomjlanovic had surgery on her serving shoulder in March, 2016. After playing just two matches in January and Australia, she was done. And although she tried hard to get back for the 2017 Australian summer (especially as she, at that point, was taking steps to represent Australia), she couldn’t.
She came back in late February 2017, in Acapulco. And she has mostly played through the season. Dubai is her 21st tournament, with three retirements.
The No. 2 seed in Dubai is Mihaela Buzarnescu of Romania, the 29-year-old lefty who came along so quickly in the latter part of 2017 that she still doesn’t rate a photo on her page on the ITF website (although the WTA site did her a solid).
Buzarnescu, who has a PhD, was a top-five junior who has been star-crossed with injuries during her pro career, and spent the first 10 years mostly at the ITF level.
But suddenly, this year, she bloomed. Ranked No. 351 in January, she sits at a career high No. 59. And she probably doesn’t want to stop the momentum.
Buzarnescu has already played 151 matches this year (94 in singles main draws and qualifying alone) and lost just three games in her first two singles matches in Dubai before going down to Bencic, 7-6, 6-2, in the quarterfinals Thursday.
(She’ll get to 152 with her semifinal doubles match Friday. And then one more if she reaches the final).
The lefty qualified at the US Open – her first Grand Slam main draw – and then she took off. Two weeks later she played a $80,000 ITF, and she won it. A few weeks after that, she qualified for her first WTA event in Linz, and reached the semifinals.
She won another $100,000 tournament, then reached the final of yet another the week after that, then won a $60,000 event in Japan.
Buzarnescu might go into Australia tired, but she’ll be match tough. She’s playing Shenzhen and Hobart before the big event.
Other names in Dubai include Patty Schnyder (who will head down to play the Australian Open – in qualifying – for the first time since 2011). Also there was 38-year-old Greta Arn, who retired for 4 1/2 years, returned in July with no ranking and is now inside the top 300.
If you were looking for storylines, and for players to look out for in January, this tournament has all you could ask for.
More bad news on the health front for Milos Raonic.
The Canadian returned after a seven-week absence due to a wrist injury in Tokyo this week, and won his first round against Viktor Troicki.
But Thursday against Yuichi Sugita of Japan, he was broken in his opening service game – and then retired from the match.
The reason was a calf injury. Raonic also pulled out of next week’s Masters 1000 tournament in Shanghai.
Unusually for the Canadian, he skipped his mandatory post-match press conference.
He issued a statement through the ATP.
“I picked up a strain to the calf. It’s hard to know the extent of it, I’ll have to wait because it’s too soon to have an exact evaluation. It happened when the score was deuce. I felt a sharp pain at the back of my leg. I will head home now and get medical attention,” Raonic said in the statement.
“It’s been a difficult and frustrating year. I obviously wish I could have focused on tennis more rather than chasing help all the time.”
It’s yet another physical setback for a player who has had plenty of them in his career, most of them involving his hip and upper-leg area.
The Brisbane event already landed Rafael Nadal. So it will be very strong at the top of the entry list as it completes with Doha (which has three times the prize money) and the old Chennai tournament, which recently announced it was relocating to Pune, India.
Roger Federer already has committed to playing the Hopman Cup again to start 2018.
NEW YORK – Canadian Milos Raonic has had his fair share of injuries, that’s for sure.
But he’s usually been lucky enough not to miss a Grand Slam.
The 26-year-old’s luck ran out this time, as the left wrist issue that hampered him in Montreal and forced him to miss the Masters 1000 in Cincinnati last week will also keep him out of the US Open.
“I have tried everything in my power to rehabilitate this injury in time for the US Open in order to play an event that is so truly special to me. However, the pain is too great and, in consultation with my doctors, I am left with no option but to withdraw from the event,” Raonic announced on Instagram.
Raonic also said that he underwent a procedure Tuesday to remove portions of the bone that have been causing the discomfort.
He said he has “too much respect for the US Open and my fellow competitors to take a spot in the draw when I know I cannot give full effort due to this injury.”
Raonic said he’s already back in the gym starting rehab, and hopes to be back on court in a few weeks.
“I look forward to rejoining the tour healthier and stronger and finishing the 2017 season in proper form,” he wrote.
Other big events on tap
Raonic made no mention in his note about two other major upcoming events on his schedule.
Canada plays Indian in a crucial World Group playoff tie in just over three weeks in Edmonton, Alberta.
And right after that, Raonic is due to lead Team “rest of the world” against Team Europe in the inaugural Laver Cup in Prague.
Raonic’s absence just adds to the top-10 woes at this event with Novak Djokovic, Stan Wawrinka and Kei Nishikori also out (all of them for the season).
His absence will give a lucky loser a spot in the draw. And it also will move Juan Martin del Potro up to the No. 24 seed. And that means he can avoid the top eight seeds in a potential third-round match.
It also means that Robin Haase of the Netherlands squeezes into a seeded spot in the draw.
Raonic had been scheduled to be the No. 8 seed. Now, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (who hasn’t done much of late) will get that seed.
The players really are dropping like flies, it seems like.
The latest casualty is Timea Bacsinszky.
The 28-year-old from Switzerland, currently ranked No. 24 and on track to be seeded at the US Open, reached the French Open semifinals a little over two months ago.
She hasn’t played since losing a three-setter to Agnieszka Radwanska in the third round of Wimbledon.
And she won’t take the court in the foreseeable future.
Bacsinszky announced Monday that she will miss both the New Haven warmup event and the US Open with the thigh injury that has been troubling her for a few months. She has already missed Toronto and Cincinnati.
She said the thigh is better. But she has also taken advantage of the time off to have an ongoing hand injury treated.
Bascinszky said the hand problem goes all the way back to the end of last year. She needs more rehab on it, and also is going to have some specialists look at it.
So the Swiss star has decided to skip Montreal and Cincinnati. The two Masters 1000 series tournaments, which take place on back-to-back weeks, are a major grind.
“After much backwards and forwards and consultations with my doctors and my team unfortunately I have decided to skip Canada and Cincinnati to be on the safe side, even though I’ve been battling hard to make these events,” Wawrinka said in a statement.
“Hugely disappointing for my fans and myself that I have to make this decision. But I need to be 100 per cent confident before I resume competition (until) the injury that plagued me in Wimbledon has been resolved. My team and I are doing everything possible to make this a speedy recovery.”
“Stan has always been loyal to our tournament and we’re obviously disappointed he won’t be here this year. He is one of the best players in the world and we wish him a quick recovery and best of luck for the rest of the season,” Lapierre said in a statement.
Wawrinka is ranked No. 4, with Novak Djokovic (who also won’t be at either event) down to No. 5. The top three players in the rankings are still in both events.
Come to think of it, Andy Murray also has been pretty quiet lately. Let’s hope that’s a sign of good news, not bad news.
Martin Klizan of Slovakia also has pulled out of the Rogers Cup. Which means American Donald Young, who gave Kei Nishikori such a tussle late Tuesday night at the Citi Open, is promoted into the main draw.
Next in with Wawrinka’s withdrawal will be Kyle Edmund of Great Britain.
Those are just the players who were in the top 25 at the tournament’s entry deadline. Monica Puig, Yaroslava Shvedova and Saisai Zheng also have withdrawn.
Who knows, by the time the draw is made, there might be more.
A lot of players have pulled out of the qualifying as well. And that means, for a Premier-level event, the current cut-off is at No. 334, with doubles specialist Olga Savchuk. That’s not Premier-like.
The carnage isn’t nearly as bad in Mallorca, the International-level tournament also held next week.
Germans Laura Siegemund and Annika Back are out with long-term injuries. So far, Monica Niculescu of Romania is the only other player to withdraw.
Men hard-hit too
On the men’s side, the Queen’s Club event will not have Juan Martin del Potro or Brit Dan Evans. Or French Open Rafael Nadal, Diego Schwartzman or David Goffin. Goffin is still healing that nasty ankle injury suffered in Paris.
In Halle, Germany, only Pablo Carreño Busta is out, after suffering an abdominal injury during his match against Rafael Nadal at the French Open.
Other notable men’s players who have withdrawn next week: Kevin Anderson, Malek Jaziri and Borna Coric.
ROLAND GARROS – There are moments on a tennis court where humanity trumps tennis.
They are nearly always sad moments.
Thursday at the French Open, Nico Almagro and Juan Martin del Potro shared one.
The 31-year-old Almagro has been at this 15 years. He’s been in the top 10, won 16 ATP Tour titles and more than $10 million in prize money. He’s accomplished quite a lot in the grand scheme of things and on the ATP Tour these days, 31 is hardly retirement time.
But his last two tournaments have ended in agony and tears because of a left knee injury.
The Spaniard had just won the second set against his old friend del Potro when, early in the third, the knee went – again.
It happened just two weeks ago in Rome when he was playing another good pal, Rafael Nadal. He was forced to stop in the fourth game of the match.
On that occasion, it almost looked like he’d taken a bullet in the knee, when he went down in a heap after what seemed like a fairly innocuous twist as he landed after hitting a shot. It didn’t seem possible Almagro could be back in time for the French Open. But he was. And he won his first-round match against Marcos Baghdatis of Cyprus.
But it was hard-fought, four close sets. And sometimes it’s the day after, and the day after that, that prove the challenge with a not-quite-healed injury.
Deja vu all over again
The Spaniard felt the knee in the second game of the third set. Del Potro headed over to Almagro’s side of the net, but quickly returned to his own side as Almagro indicated he would try to continue.
On what turned out to be the final point of the match, Almagro let a second serve just fly by. He didn’t even see it; his head was already down. He already knew it was over.
You could hear him from the top of Court 2, as the entire court went silent. He fell backwards onto the court, his chest heaving up and down, wracked with sobs.
Throughout, del Potro was as solicitous as it’s possible to be on a tennis court – especially on such a big occasion for both. They were extraordinary scenes. The Argentine stepping over the net to get to the other side to offer what help he could. Helping his old friend back to his chair, and sitting with him to offer comfort once he had retired from the match.
Del Potro is the guy you want around if the worst thing in the world happens to you. But even the power of a Delpo hug wasn’t nearly enough in this case.
Del Potro knows exactly how it feels to be unable to do what you do best because of an injury. He has lost years to his wrist issues and, indeed, is playing his first French Open in five years.
“I tried to, I don’t know, tried to find a good words for that moment. I say to him, ‘Try to be calm.’ Try to think about his family, his baby. And sometimes the heart is first than the tennis match or the tennis life,” he said afterwards. “It’s an unpleasant feeling. You have a player who is suffering quite a lot. He was in agony. It was tough. I told him that tennis is important, but health matters more than tennis in this case, because I want him to be out of his bad patch.”
The Argentine, who will play No. 1 seed Andy Murray in the third round, wasn’t feeling all that great himself.
He had treatment for a groin injury earlier in the match, and the anti-inflammatories still hadn’t quite kicked in when Almagro made the point moot – at least for this day.
“It happened to me when I was at 3-1 or 4-2 (in the first set). I had to hit the ball with my backhand, and I was wrong-footed. And I felt pain on the groin and lost some mobility. I won the set very quickly,” del Potro said. “In the second set, had to call the doctor so that I could get some anti-inflammatories, and I hoped that the anti-inflammatories could be effective. All of a sudden, he suffered pain on his knee.”
Del Potro said the groin situation is nothing new.
“I know I have one day and a half to feel better. It’s an old problem for me, so my physio knows how to treat that. But I will see,” he said. “Hopefully I can be in good shape, because I would like to play 100 per cent in the third round, and I’m feeling good with my game at this moment. But I need to be in good shape, as well.”
ROLAND GARROS – In Genie Bouchard’s mind, the mind of a professional athlete who wants to compete, it was always a “go”.
But only in the last 24 hours or so was there much belief that the 23-year-old Canadian would indeed take the court for her first round at the French Open as she deals with a Grade 2 ankle sprain suffered last week in Nürnberg, Germany.
The injury forced her to pull out of that tournament.
“There’s no magic powder or special things you can do, it’s just time and treatment. Of course it’s always frustrating, but it happens, and it’s part of being a professional athlete,” Bouchard said Saturday, as she officially confirmed her participation. “I tried not to be negative about it, and just take it day by day.”
The injury occurred on a routine run for a drop shot. And Bouchard said the condition of the court was largely responsible for what happened. Indeed, Germany’s Laura Siegemund injured her knee on the very same court a few days later, and was forced to pull out of the French Open.
“I started with balls being fed to me, without movement and slowly I added movement, normal progression. The ankle is stable, so that’s a good thing,” Bouchard said. “In my head it was always yes. But I was taking it day by day this week in practice to really see. I think the last two days we had more confidence that I’d be able to play.”
That the women’s singles draw is wide open this year is an understatement. You would almost give Victoria Azarenka, who made a surprise appearance on Court Philippe-Chatrier Saturday during Kid’s Day and plans to return from maternity leave in just over two weeks, a legit shot at making the second week.
Bouchard, who plays No. 72 Risa Ozaki of Japan in the first round, isn’t thinking big picture at the moment.
“I’m just happy to play the tournament. I really wasn’t sure a week ago that I could play. So for me it’s already a victory. What’ll happen, I don’t know. But for sure, lots of players in the draw have a good chance,” she said.
The Canadian’s half of the draw will play its first-round matches on Monday and Tuesday. With 12 of the matches to be scheduled Monday and the remaining 20 on Tuesday, she had a better-than-even chance of getting the latest start possible.
First-round play on both the men’s and women’s side begins Sunday.
As well, Bouchard made a request for a Tuesday start. Don’t ask, don’t get, right? Whether it was random luck or her request being granted, she will play Tuesday. And that gives her three more days to continue her progress.
Bouchard played Ozaki, who is a month younger, in the juniors on two occasions and won in straight sets. The last time came in the 2012 Australian Open quarter-finals.
More recently, the Canadian had a tough time with her Japanese opponent at Indian Wells last year. Ozaki began that first-round match well, got a lot of balls back into court. Bouchard had to recover from a set deficit to win.
The match wasn’t without its drama.
Here’s what she had to say after the victory.
Same game plan
The Canadian won’t want to be engaging in any long rallies, with the ankle one false move away from ending it all. But she said she won’t change her game plan.
“I think that in the match I won’t think about that. That’s what I’ve done my whole career. Usually I don’t feel much of anything during a match anyway, because of adrenaline and being concentrated on the match and nothing else, “ she said. “So I don’t want to change my game because of that.
“I’ll go, and play my game 100 per cent, and after that I’ll see if there’s anything I have to manage with my ankle.”
Would she have played, had it not been a Grand Slam tournament?
“But I think so. It’s feeling better and better,” she said. “I always want to play. It’s difficult for me not to play.”