Happy new year, dear readers, and welcome to another year of tennis coverage. The 2015 season commences today, 1 January, in Abu Dhabi with the start of the Mubadala World Tennis Championship. This winner-takes-all exhibition event always manages to draw an exceptional line-up, and this year is no exception, with the field including Nadal, Djokovic, Murray and Wawrinka. As is customary at this time of year, there have been a few last minute changes to the draw, with Frenchmen Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Gael Monfils being replaced by Spaniards Feliciano Lopez and Nicolas Almagro.
Today sees Andy Murray kick off the action with a match-up against the veteran Lopez, followed by a clash between Australian Open champion Wawrinka and 2012 Abu Dhabi finalist Almagro. World number one Novak Djokovic awaits the winner of the Wawrinka-Almagro contest, whilst Nadal will take on the victor in the Murray-Lopez match in tomorrow’s line-up. Saturday will see play-offs for fifth and third place as the players scramble to get in as much match practice as possible in the lead-up to the Australian Open, before the winners of Friday’s “semi-finals” will square off for the title and the US$250,000 winner’s cheque.
While the weather here in Abu Dhabi is absolutely brutal in the summer months, the current winter climate is ideal for both watching and playing tennis, and the tournament organisers are expecting bumper crowds in the United Arab Emirates capital once again this year. Ahead of today’s matches, I thought it would be interesting to consider some of the pivotal questions going into the tournament and the new season.
1. Can Rafael Nadal reclaim his position at the top of the world rankings?
Aside from claiming an incredible ninth French Open title in June last year, 2014 was an incredibly frustrating year for the Spanish superstar. A myriad of injuries and ailments conspired to keep Nadal off the court for large parts of the year, with a back injury forcing his retirement in the Australian Open final, a wrist injury ruining his North American hard court season and appendicitis affecting his ability to compete during the indoor season in the latter part of the year.
Rumoured to have had stem cell treatment on his troublesome back in late 2014, it will be fascinating to see if Nadal can get back to his best in 2015. With his ability to compete being at the core of his approach as a sportsman, 2015 shapes as a critical year for the Spaniard. If his body suffers more trauma, I wouldn’t rule out an early retirement at some stage in the next couple of years. But if he can stay healthy, there’s no reason why Nadal won’t again be one of the main contenders at each of the majors.
2. Will Novak Djokovic maintain his unbeaten run in Abu Dhabi?
The world number one has won the last 3 tournaments in Abu Dhabi, dropping a total of just two sets in the process. The Serb loves the fast courts at Zayed Sports City, and I can’t see anyone besting him this year, with Nadal on the recovery path and Murray still seeking to return to this best form after his own back surgery in late 2013. 2014 will be cherished by Djokovic for his ability to withstand everything Federer could throw at him to claim a second Wimbledon title, but I sense that the Serb will be looking for multiple Grand Slam titles in 2015 after he squandered some good opportunities in Paris and New York last year.
3. Has Andy Murray missed his moment?
2014 was a tale of two halves for Andy Murray. The first part of the season saw the Scot produce some decidedly patchy results as he struggled with his court movement after his back surgery. The second part of the season was far more successful, as Murray embarked on a campaign to improve his match fitness and to boost his confidence by playing as much as possible. Tournament wins in Shenzen, Valencia and Vienna saw the former Wimbledon champion qualify for the end-of-season championships in London and, whilst his performance there was very ordinary, the late season flourish should provide the world number 6 with a solid platform to build on in 2015.
Always the clear fourth member of the “Big Four”, the big question is whether Murray can add more majors in the coming years, as Federer enters the twilight of his career and Nadal is potentially forced to deal with more injury concerns, or whether the Scot will be surpassed by the new generation coming through. Players such as Dimitrov, Raonic, Nishikori and Cilic all took big strides forward in 2014, so time is of the essence if Murray is to beef up his collection of major titles.
4. Will Stan Wawrinka be a one-Slam wonder?
A maiden Grand Slam title in Melbourne, a first Masters 1000 title in Monte Carlo, and a major contribution to Switzerland’s historic Davis Cup victory – all in all, 2014 was a momentous year for Stan Wawrinka. At his best, the Swiss star is capable of beating anyone, and perhaps the biggest advantage to come out of 2014 for Wawrinka was proving to himself that he can actually produce his best tennis on the sport’s biggest stages. But it’s fair to say that the world number 4 produced plenty of poor performances last year as well, and the goal in 2015 will be for Wawrinka to produce the consistency that has made each member of the Big Four so dependably brilliant over the best part of the last decade. The test for Wawrinka starts today in Abu Dhabi – last year, the Swiss star finished last at the exhibition, and no doubt he will want to make amends this time around.
5. Can Nico Almagro return to the top 10?
Similar to countryman Nadal, 2014 was a frustrating year for Nicolas Almagro. The clay-court specialist, who made it to number 9 in the world rankings in 2011, made a bright start to the year, beating Nadal in Barcelona in the lead-up to the French Open. But shoulder and foot injuries forced the Spaniard to miss the last two majors of the year, and saw his ranking slip outside the world’s top 70. Aged 29, Almagro doesn’t have a lot of time to get his career back on track, but when healthy he is a formidable opponent. Whilst the red dirt is his preferred surface, he is also an accomplished hard-courts player, as evidenced by his run to the 2012 Abu Dhabi final.
6. Will Feliciano Lopez break into the top 10 in 2015?
At 33, Feliciano Lopez is a veteran of the ATP Tour. But the leftie enjoyed a terrific year on tour in 2014, claiming the fourth singles title of his career and improving his ranking to a career-high of 14. Although there are plenty of talented young players emerging on tour, if Lopez can maintain his form and consistency in 2015 then there is no reason why he can’t position himself for a crack at the world’s top 10. Lopez is creating an ideal foundation for 2015 by competing in Abu Dhabi, and on the fast hard-courts don’t be surprised if he gives Andy Murray some anxious moments in their match today.
In today’s matches, I’ll back Stan Wawrinka to overcome Nico Almagro in straight sets, and I think Andy Murray will outlast Feliciano Lopez in a tight 3-setter. Enjoy the tennis, and I’ll be back tomorrow with a recap of today’s matches and a preview of Friday’s action. In the meantime, you can follow me on Twitter: @satelliteserve.