Novak Djokovic has pulled out of next week’s ABN AMRO World Tennis Tournament in Rotterdam. The cited reason is a shoulder strain, although given the absence of both Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, is it unreasonable to suggest that his withdrawal signals a broader strategic alignment, one akin to embroidering your nickname on your clothes, and winning the odd Slam? Is Djokovic too good for events like these? To answer my own question: yes, it is an unreasonable suggestion. Facetious, even, but I couldn’t help myself.
For any other ATP event in fallow February – with the possible exception of Dubai – Djokovic’s withdrawal would be crippling. But Rotterdam almost invariably attracts a very solid roster, and this year’s is excellent, just about worthy of a Masters 1000. Furthermore, without the expansive seeding of a major to bog down the early rounds, there are marquee match-ups from the get-go.
Robin Soderling is the defending champion, and the top seed thanks to Djokovic’s withdrawal. Until Bercy rolls round, this will be the most prestigious title he has ever had to defend. First up he faces Robin Haase. Balls will be struck, tremendously. For his sins – which are now considerable – Andy Murray has drawn Marcos Baghdatis in the opening round. Had the burly Cypriot played this week, he would have been top seed at any event he deigned to grace. Not in Rotterdam. It will be a stern test of Murray’s assertion that he won’t be reprising last year’s prolonged slump, although eight days is still a taxing turn-around from Melbourne.
Cult fan-bases will collide when Nikolay Davydenko takes on Michael Llodra, while Ernests Gulbis and Thiemo de Bakker will wage separate wars against their own wills, meanwhile battling each other for control of the self-destruct button. Any hope that Jo-Wilfried Tsonga or Marin Cilic could rest slightly easier, having drawn qualifiers, was rapidly quashed by a glance at the qualifying event, which is already underway. The 16-man qualifying draw is a further testament to the strength of the Rotterdam field. Philipp Petzschner, raffishly bearded of late, is the top seed. Other notables include Dimitry Tursonov still ambling up the comeback trail, Julien Benneteau, and Grigor Dimitrov. These guys are not early round gimmes at the best of times, and now they’ll be hardened from a couple of tune-up matches. Any of them could wreck Cilic’s week in no time flat. I don’t much care for making bold predictions based on draws, but I’m going to lock that one in.