PARIS: Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray open the 2014 season in Abu Dhabi on Thursday with Roger Federer hoping his absence isn’t an indicator of more misery ahead.
World No.1 Nadal provided the comeback story of 2013, winning 10 titles, including a record eighth French Open and a second US Open, which took his majors haul to 13.
Djokovic defended his Australian Open crown while Murray claimed Britain’s first Wimbledon mens’ title in 77 years.
But while the big three start their new campaigns with a leisurely three-day stroll in the Gulf, record 17-time major winner Federer begins his 17th season as a professional in Brisbane and with his career at a crossroads.
In 2013, the world No.6 failed to reach a Grand Slam final for the first time since 2002 and his second-round defeat at Wimbledon ended his run of 36 consecutive Grand Slam quarterfinal appearances.
Federer will turn 33 in August but is acutely aware that his great hero, Pete Sampras, quit at 31 and at the top of his game, having secured a fifth US Open.
His record against the sport’s big three also makes for worrying reading — he is 10-22 against Nadal having lost all four matches against the great Spaniard this year and 9-11 when up against Murray, losing their one clash in 2013.
He is still ahead in his rivalry with Djokovic at 16-15 but lost both their meetings this year while the Serb has taken six of their last eight matches.
The Swiss goes into 2014 having severed his ties with long-time coach Paul Annacone, one of a number of players to have tweaked their back-up teams over the winter.
“For me, it’s pretty simple: this is what I used to do as a little boy. It’s something that always is there in your DNA,” said Federer, who will be playing a warm-up tournament in Australia for the first time in 11 years.
After Brisbane, where he is top seed, Federer heads for the Australian Open, a title he has captured on four occasions but where he has fallen in the semi-finals on his last three visits.
Nadal missed the UAE tournament in 2012 as well as the Australian Open as he nursed a knee injury for seven months, but he had a record-setting 2013, losing just seven times in 82 matches.
The 27-year-old is now just four majors behind Federer and with five years on his long-standing rival, is widely expected to pass the mark of the Swiss whose last major was the 2012 Wimbledon title.
Djokovic stunned tennis by hiring Boris Becker as his new head coach, a decision prompted by his desperate desire to improve a record that reads six Grand Slam titles but also six defeats in finals at majors.
As well as defending his Australian Open title, Djokovic also has another big date lined up for early in the new year, marrying longtime girlfriend Jelena Ristic to whom he got engaged in September.
Murray missed the closing tournaments of 2013 to undergo back surgery and once his Abu Dhabi stint is over he will join Nadal as the leading attraction in Doha, which, along with Brisbane and Chennai, opens the competitive season.
“I know how hard it is to win the majors,” Murray, who lost his first four Grand Slam finals, told Sky Sports News.
“It may never happen again, I might not win another one but I just want to give myself the best chance to do that. Hopefully I’ll give myself an opportunity to win another one.” The WTA Tour starts in Brisbane and Auckland and will conclude with a new home in Singapore for the season-ending championships.
Six of the world’s top 10 will be in Brisbane led by defending champion Serena Williams.
The American will be 33 in 2014 but her rock-solid confidence and iron will are as intimidating as ever.
Williams ended 2013 with 11 titles while triumphs at the French and US Opens took her Grand Slam haul to 17, one off the mark shared by Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova and just five away from Steffi Graf’s Open Era record of 22.
Williams enjoyed a match record of 78 wins against just four defeats, claimed the season-ending WTA Championships title and became the oldest No.1 player.
Victoria Azarenka, comfortably Williams’ biggest rival, also features in Brisbane as does Maria Sharapova who was forced to shut down her 2013 campaign at Cincinnati in August because of a shoulder injury.
Sharapova has hired Sven Groeneveld, the former coach of Monica Seles, in an effort to knock Williams off her perch.
However, Sharapova has a 2-14 record against the American with both those wins coming way back in 2004.
World No.2 Azarenka has won just three of her 16 meetings against Williams, although she split their four clashes in 2013 and for a second successive season took her great rival to three sets in the US Open final.