There was a good statistic flying around on Sunday which said that Serena Williams’ victory in Brisbane means that for the first time since Wimbledon 2002, she will go into a grand slam having won her previous tournament.
It says a lot for Williams’ ability to go into a grand slam “cold” that she has managed to win 15 of them in all but also shows that warm-up tournaments are largely just that; a warm-up for the big thing. Little point going all out in a warm-up if it ends up affecting performance when it really matters. The best players play their best when they need to, not when it’s largely irrelevant.
In the week before the Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon, at least one exhibition event is usually on offer, giving some of the star names the chance to just get a couple of matches without pressure. The US Open is the only one of the four grand slams in which there is not an exhibition event the week before. On the men’s side, with best-of-five sets to think about, that just means the big guns almost always take that week off. Some of the women like to play an official event the week before but others, like Williams and Maria Sharapova, for example, can usually be found on the practice courts at the grand slam venues themselves.
Considering all this, I thought I’d look into the performances of Australian Open champions over the past 20 years, in one of the official ATP “warm-up events”. All these events carry ranking points, so cannot be ignored, but obviously players tend not to be giving absolutely everything, especially as they are often played in testing, hot conditions.
On the men’s side, a winner of one of the ATP events in the two weeks’ preceding the Australian Open has gone on to win the title only twice. Roger Federer won the Qatar Open in 2006 before taking his second Melbourne title and in 1998, Petr Korda also won Qatar before going on to claim his first and only grand slam title in Melbourne a few weeks later.
In all that time, not many winners of the warm-up events have made the final in Melbourne. Lleyton Hewitt managed it, winning Sydney before losing the big one to Marat Safin, Thomas Enqvist won Adelaide in 1999 and then lost to Yevgeny Kafelnikov in Melbourne and Marcelo Rios won Auckland but was then beaten by Korda in the Melbourne final.
Even on the women’s side, the double winners are rare. In the past 20 years, only four women have won a warm-up event and then taken the title in Melbourne. Monica Seles won Sydney before winning what turned out to be her last grand slam crown; Martina Hingis did the same double the year after; Justine Henin won Sydney in 2004 and then took the Melbourne crown and Victoria Azarenka did it last year.
So while those players winning one or more of the tournaments on offer in the two weeks preceding the Australian Open should not get ahead of themselves. The big guns, especially on the men’s side, tend not to play too much or too hard, while even the women, who don’t have to worry about playing five setters, appear to save themselves for the big occasion.
Perhaps Andy Murray, the winner in Brisbane on Sunday for the second year in a row and coming off his US Open triumph, can buck the trend.