Nadal, Federer mending their maladies
Believe it or not, there's plenty to keep an eye on in the tennis world before the next big one in May, the French Open, and we're not simply alluding to mixed tournaments in the California desert and Miami.
Rafael Nadal's health, Roger Federer's spirits and Ana Ivanovic's struggles should make for compelling plotlines in the weeks ahead. Then there's the Davis Cup, never lacking in drama. Here's a closer look:
Rafa's health: Nadal said he wasn't worried about his right knee, which rendered him a bystander in the third set of Sunday's ABN AMRO World Tennis Tournament (quite the mouthful) final against relentless Scot Andy Murray.
"It's not an injury like last year," he told reporters in Spain, referring to the end of 2008, when lingering knee problems resurfaced. "It was just a question of too much wear and tear and fatigue."
Well, isn't that the point?
Why Nadal bothered showing up in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, after such a grueling Australian Open and complaining about how tough hard courts are on the body is a minute mystery. He certainly isn't devoid of cash, and any fine imposed for bailing probably equates to chump change -- for him.
The lefty went the distance in four of five tussles, including three in a row that lasted about 2½ hours each.
"I would assume he wasn't hurting when he started and that as the week wore on, whether it was the way the court was or something else, the knees got irritated and then he was struggling," said American Peter Fleming, a former top-10 pro turned analyst for Britain's Sky Sports, which aired the event.
Nadal on Thursday withdrew from next week's lucrative, and controversial, Dubai Tennis Championships.
"He is going to have to be careful about his schedule, especially the tournaments he plays on hard courts."
Roger's rebound: Federer's devastation during the awards ceremony Down Under didn't leave anyone guessing how he felt, and how the 27-year-old responds is keenly anticipated.
"I guess it's a question of how badly he got hurt by it and how willing he is to dig a little deeper and figure it out because clearly it's reached the point where he's not happy playing Rafa," Fleming said. "He's got some sort of mental block."
Fans won't get the chance to see Federer's reply for at least a bit. He bailed from Dubai and Switzerland's enticing Davis Cup encounter against the U.S., choosing instead to strengthen his back, which caused discomfort as 2008 ground to a halt. A return appears likely in Indian Wells, which begins the second week of March.
As he seeks more history -- that 14th Grand Slam title must seem so close, yet so far away -- many suggest Federer needs a new coach; his cast in the past included the respected trio of Jose Higueras, Tony Roche and Peter Lundgren.
Fleming isn't so sure.
"He understands the game so well and he competes so well that very few guys would have any sort of insight that would interest him," Fleming said. "If some guy is going to regurgitate something he was going through five or 10 years ago, I have a feeling that just might bore him. I almost think he's so good at looking and coming up with the answer himself, and it will be interesting to see if he can do it one more time."
Ana's tribulations: Remember when Svetlana Kuznetsova won the U.S. Open five years ago? It was supposed to be the first of a bunch of majors. After all, the Russian possesses enormous groundstrokes, covers the court well and can volley.
A combination of factors weighed Kuznetsova down, and she's stuck on that one Grand Slam title, which borders "fluke" territory.
Ivanovic has plummeted since benefiting from Justine Henin's absence and a nice draw to claim the French Open in June. A thumb injury contributed to a second-round exit at the U.S. Open, yet there also were third-round exits at Wimbledon and last month's Australian Open.
Fed up with having to share affable Dutchman Sven Groeneveld with fellow adidas clients, the 21-year-old partnered with Craig Kardon, the former coach of Martina Navratilova, Lindsay Davenport and Mary Pierce, among others. Ivanovic and Kardon are testing out the waters at this week's women's Dubai Tennis Championships.
"I feel very confident it's going to be good," said Ivanovic.
She's not the only one.
"I think Sven did a great job with her in the training process and really helped elevate her game, but any player at that level, especially in the women's game, they need someone that they can truly rely on and not have to worry about the incidental possibilities," said Tennis Channel analyst Katrina Adams. "Ana needs someone emotionally she can connect with when she's on the court as well as guide her training."
The serve, often a source of angst, needs improving, Adams said, and beefing up her net game wouldn't hurt.
"We just have to give her time," Adams, an ex-doubles standout, said. "Building the confidence back up and really working on some specifics that will give her that confidence, I think she'll be back."
Davis Cup duels: So much for the ballyhooed Federer-Andy Roddick clash in the opening round of Davis Cup. Tickets for the March 6-8 series in Birmingham, Ala., sold out in less than an hour in January, and you can bet Stanislas Wawrinka's one-handed backhand, albeit stunning, wasn't the reason why. The good news, of course, for U.S. captain Patrick McEnroe and his faithful lot is that only a minor miracle should prevent the hosts from advancing to the quarterfinals: Switzerland's third highest-ranked singles player is world No. 150 Stephane Bohli, a 25-year-old who's won a grand total of six top-tier matches since turning pro in 2002.
Thankfully there's a blockbuster rubber expected to materialize when defending champion Spain entertains Serbia on clay in the picturesque coastal town of Benidorm. Nadal says he'll be ready by then, which means a probable matchup with Novak Djokovic. Djokovic must have something to prove following a mediocre past seven months.
Being a heavy favorite means little for Spain. Few gave Spain, without Nadal, much chance against Argentina in December's final, and we know what happened.
"Everybody is expecting us to win, but I know it is complicated," new Spanish captain Albert Costa, the 2002 French Open champ, told the ITF's Web site. "People who understand about sports know you cannot win all the time, but we will do our job 100 percent."
Another mouthwatering encounter pits Radek Stepanek's Czech Republic team against France's new mousquetaires.
Ravi Ubha is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.