Despite their sporadic laments over the short offseason, the leading stars of tennis tend to trade pathos for paychecks when a sufficiently wealthy group of sponsors solicits them for an exhibition. The 2012-2013 offseason has witnessed perhaps the greatest flowering of this trend to date. Even before this writing, the Williams sisters took their talents to Johannesburg, Djokovic frolicked around Rio de Janeiro with Kuerten, and Toronto hosted a lively event called the Face-off. That exhibition, like the most successful of its type, struck just the right balance between slapstick humor and some genuinely good tennis. Since exhibitions by definition do not take themselves too seriously, nobody should take them too seriously either. This preview of the exhibition season similarly blends wisdom (we hope) with a little wit.
Singapore: November 24-25
The portentously named Clash of Continents will feature Tipsarevic (Europe), Nishikori (Asia), and Monaco (South America). An ailing Fish withdrew from representing North America, leaving the organizers to improvise a round-robin format for the men’s matches on November 24. On the following day, Hantuchova will face Peng in a match likely to attract Singapore’s ethnically Chinese population—as well as most men who fancy leggy blondes. A city without a professional tournament at present, this wealthy commercial center could host the WTA year-end championships and has demonstrated a sustained interest in women’s tennis with earlier exhibitions featuring more renowned stars.
Miami: November 30-December 2
Rescheduled from its original date last offseason, the Miami Tennis Cup conveniently commemorates “Andy Roddick’s farewell to South Florida.” The retiring American, in fact if not in personality, achieved some of his most notable successes at the city’s Sony Ericsson Open, including two of his three victories over Federer. Poised to play Roddick’s foil here are Murray, a part-time resident of the state and another former champion of the Masters 1000 tournament, and current American #1 Isner, likely to raise eyebrows with his curiosity of a serve. Runner-up to Roddick at the only major that he won, fellow retiree Juan Carlos Ferrero accompanies his compatriot Almagro and Colombian journeyman Alejandro Falla in an obvious attempt to capture Miami’s Hispanic community. This motley assemblage of players seems logical only to an event promoter, but it still should create some lively moments starring its lead attraction. By then, Roddick should have had time to refine the impersonations that he unveiled in Canada, like a comedian bringing his slapstick show from the Midwest to Broadway.
Milan: December 1
A sequel to last year’s exhibition featuring the Williams sisters, La Grande Sfida showcases the two most glamorous women in the sport against the world’s top doubles team. Sharapova will face Errani in a rematch of the Roland Garros final, and Ivanovic will meet Vinci in a rematch of…well, nothing in particular. But the highlight of the evening will come when the two former singles #1s stand on the same side of the net to play the reigning doubles #1s, creating a delicious opportunity for paparazzi professional and amateur alike. With the guests much superior in singles and the hosts far more accomplished in doubles, a graceful division of laurels looks likely.
Santiago: December 6
Hosting Sharapova and Dulko in 2010, the Cachantun Beauty Challenge returns with Ivanovic pitted against Zvonareva. The Serbian star will make her first visit to South American since winning Roland Garros, while the Russian resurfaces following a disastrous season that saw her fall from inside the top 10 to the fringes of the top 100, in part because of injuries. Usually an edgy competitor whose cerulean eyes often hovered on the verge of tears, Zvonareva has played only a handful of exhibitions before in venues such as Hong Kong. In fact, both women should enjoy the non-competitive atmosphere that suits them more naturally than the cauldrons of pressure on the Tour. Two days after this exhibition, Ivanovic reportedly will travel to Doha for a match against an opponent whose identity so far remains unknown, and probably of little interest to most who will attend.
Sao Paulo: December 6-8
Clearly blessed with some generous sponsors, the Gillette Federer Tour compiles the most stunning group of players showcased by any of these exhibitions. The man whose name the exhibition bears must share its spotlight with all of the top three women (Azarenka, Sharapova, and Serena) in addition to crowd favorites Tsonga, Wozniacki, and the Bryan Brothers. Rounding out this spectacular lineup are local heroes Thomaz Bellucci, Bruno Soares, and Marcelo Melo, the latter of whom will face the Bryans on the opening day after Federer meets Bellucci. The more globally relevant contests begin on December 7 with Sharapova-Wozniacki and extend through December 8 with Serena-Azarenka and Federer-Tsonga. Which match of this miniature tournament sounds the most entertaining? One would have to choose Serena-Azarenka, by a whisker.
Buenos Aires: December 12-13
Next on the Gillette Federer Tour is the Copa Claro y Nokia, an odd pair of meetings on consecutive days between the same players. Stifled by Federer throughout the first half of 2012, Del Potro escaped a pair of close shaves against the Swiss star during the fall season when he won three-setters in Basel and London. After he absorbed an embarrassment on home soil, Federer can return the favor in Argentina, although one senses that the two men will agree to divide the honors. The crowd should alternate in its allegiances between Del Potro, whom it rarely sees outside the occasional Davis Cup tie, and Federer, whom it never sees at all. If the Argentines drench the GOAT in an adequate shower of admiration, perhaps he will favor them with another visit.
Bogota: December 15
The last stage of Federer’s march through South America, the Colombian capital hosts a small WTA tournament and welcomed Djokovic and Nadal to a post-Miami exhibition in 2011. Following in their footsteps are Federer and Tsonga, the latter of whom will have waited patiently after their match in Sao Paulo while the former detours through Buenos Aires. The land of Falla, Giraldo, and extremely slow clay should blink in surprise at the explosive brand of tennis from these fast-court players, who provide the excitement and crowd-pleasing thrills ideal for an exhibition. Expect Federer to attempt shots that he never would attempt in a situation of any magnitude, and Tsonga to play essentially as he would in an ordinary match—which means that we can expect about the same from each of them.
Abu Dhabi: December 27-29
Spurned by Federer this year, perhaps in response to his blitzing by Djokovic there in 2011, the Mubadala Tennis Championships recovered from that slight to assemble a field of six top-ten men. In fact, every man who will arrive in the Persian Gulf emirate either qualified for or appeared in the 2012 year-end championships, so some scintillating tennis should lie ahead. Spectators can expect to see two matches each from Djokovic, Murray, and Nadal, the last of whom will use this event to launch his comeback from the injury that has halted him since Wimbledon. The tournament refers to itself as “the opening of the world tennis season,” which seems accurate in substance if not in technicality. Adding depth to the draw are Ferrer and Berdych, each of whom hopes that 2013 starts as 2012 ended, and Tipsarevic, who hopes the opposite.
Seoul: December 28
The site of Wozniacki’s first title this year, this city will welcome her return with boyfriend Rory McIlroy as much as it welcomes the first visit of Sharapova. Or almost as much. A widely admired star throughout Asia, where her statuesque figure and golden locks fuel a massive marketing machine, Sharapova has played season-starting exhibitions before in Hong Kong, Singapore, and Thailand. This match marks the sequel to the meeting between the two blondes in Brazil and offers the winner there the opportunity to hand the loser a consolation prize. Warning to Woz, though: Sharapova historically has excelled in exhibitions, in part because she rarely embraces the exhibition mentality and plows through them much like any other match. Unwary opponents like Anna Chakvetadze and Gisela Dulko have eaten unexpected bagels from her in what they had viewed as “friendly” meetings.
Hua Hin (Thailand): December 29
For the fourth consecutive year, this tranquil resort town will feature some far from tranquil women’s tennis. Venus, Sharapova, Clijsters, Wozniacki, and Azarenka have sampled the hospitality of Hua Hin before, and now Serena will become the latest superstar to end a year there. Aligned to meet Azarenka in a rematch of the Sao Paulo exhibition (and, more importantly, the US Open final), she surely will spend less time on the court than at the beach. The president of the Thai tennis federation called this exhibition a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” for his compatriots to see Serena, but one suspects that he hopes for her to prove his hyperbole wrong.
Perth (Hopman Cup): December 29-January 5
Djokovic. Ivanovic. Together again. Need we say more?
Certainly we must, but this grandest of all exhibitions deserves its own preview. We will return just after Christmas to break down Hopman Cup XXV, the first edition of the event at the sleek new Perth Arena.