From the start of next year the men's tennis season will be cut by a fortnight, giving the top players seven weeks in which to rest their aching limbs before the start of a new campaign. Given that it was the players themselves who pushed for a longer off-season, eyebrows might have been raised in some quarters at the way in which Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal chose to spend the five weeks since they contested the final of the season-ending Barclays ATP World Tour Finals in London's O2 Arena at the end of November.
The game's leading men played pre-Christmas charity matches against each other in Zurich and Madrid and were competing in an exhibition tournament in Abu Dhabi even before they had seen in the new year. This week, when the season officially opens, they move on to Doha, where they will play in the Qatar Open, before heading for the Australian Open, which begins in 15 days' time. Federer is the defending champion in Melbourne, while Nadal needs to win there to achieve the rare feat of holding all four Grand Slam crowns at the same time.
While the cynics might wonder how much they will have earned in appearance fees even before setting foot Down Under – it is hard to imagine they would have signed up to Abu Dhabi and Qatar for much less than £1 million each – there can be no disputing that Federer and Nadal know their own bodies well enough to appreciate what is needed to get in shape. Between them the Swiss and the Spaniard have won the Australian Open five times.
Five more of the world's top 10 men will play competitively before heading for Melbourne. Robin Soderling, Andy Roddick and Fernando Verdasco are playing in Brisbane this week, Tomas Berdych is competing in Chennai and David Ferrer will reappear in Auckland next week. The exceptions are Mikhail Youzhny, who will play in an exhibition tournament in Melbourne in the week before the Australian Open, and Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic, who are making this week's Hopman Cup in Perth their main preparation for Melbourne.
Although the Hopman Cup is an official International Tennis Federation mixed-team tournament, it does not carry ranking points or have quite the same competitive edge as a main tour event. It features eight national teams, comprising one man and one woman, who play singles matches against their counterparts and then join forces for mixed doubles. The teams are split into two round-robin groups of four, with the winners going into a final next Saturday. Murray and Laura Robson represent Britain, as they did when they finished runners-up last year. All the matches are played indoors because of the heat.
Murray and Robson play their first match against Italy tomorrow and then face France and the United States. Murray's singles matches will be against Potito Starace, Nicolas Mahut and John Isner, while Robson will face Francesca Schiavone, Kristina Mladenovic and Bethanie Mattek-Sands. The other group brings together Serbia (Djokovic, playing only four weeks after helping his country win the Davis Cup, and Ana Ivanovic), Australia (Lleyton Hewitt and Alicia Molik), Belgium (Ruben Bemelmans and Justine Henin) and Kazakhstan (Andrey Golubev and Yaroslava Shvedova).
Murray tweaked his pre-season preparations by staying at his winter training camp in Miami over Christmas. Until last year he was a regular at the Qatar Open, but preferred having a fortnight to acclimatise to the heat Down Under, which helped him to play some of the best tennis of his career in reaching last year's Australian Open final.
The other significant difference in Murray's build-up is the absence of a full-time coach following the parting of the ways with Miles Maclagan last summer. Alex Corretja, a part-time member of his coaching team since 2008, and Dani Vallverdu, a friend and hitting partner, were with him in Miami and will play important roles as the Scot continues to consider his options. The world No 4 might take up the chance to work with some of the adidas team of coaches, including the highly respected Darren Cahill and Sven Groeneveld.
Robson will team up in Perth with her new coach, the Frenchman Patrick Mouratoglou, after splitting with Martijn Bok, who guided her to the 2008 junior Wimbledon title. Robson has been training at Mouratoglou's Paris academy for the last year.
The Hopman Cup sees the return of Henin, who has not played a major event since suffering an elbow injury at Wimbledon last summer. The former world No 1 says it will probably take "a few more weeks and maybe months" before she is fully fit again.Reuse content