Rafael Nadal stood motionless for a moment or two deep in the second set. He looked confused and vexed, a rare sighting regarding the world's No. 1 player, especially on his oasis of clay.

And when Rafa isn't moving his feet with the vintage intensity that has been a pillar to his success, something just isn't right. Or maybe it was just that his opponent, compatriot David Ferrer, out-intensified Nadal at his own game.

Nonetheless, Nadal suffered a rare loss on clay, falling to Ferrer 7-6 (1), 6-4 in the Monte Carlo Masters quarterfinals Friday.

"I cannot be frustrated to lose a tennis match," Nadal told reporters after the match. "In the life, there is much more important things than a tennis match.

[+] EnlargeNadal
Julian Finney/Getty ImagesRafael Nadal, who suffered a rare loss on clay Friday, said he played entirely wrong against David Ferrer.
"But I am not happy with it. I feel that I have to do more than what I did today. So when you feel that you can do more, always you come back home or to the next tournament with not the best feeling. That's my feeling today."

Nadal produced a brand of tennis he's not wont to playing: sloppy. He committed an unusually high 44 errors in what was his earliest exit from Monte Carlo in 11 years. Nadal, who is an eight-time champ at the first clay Masters event of the year, had his 30-match win streak on dirt snapped. His last loss, you ask? Same venue, but that was a year ago in last season's final against Novak Djokovic.

Sounds like a confidence issue, no? Perhaps not, according to Nadal.

"Yesterday, too, I played good, with confidence," he said. "But is not that problem. "The problem is when the match became little bit more to the limit, and not answering the right way as I normally do. So that's it."

We can parse Nadal's loss as much as we want. Was it a bad day? Back issues? Knee? Confidence? Or was his opponent just too good? After all, Ferrer is a clay stalwart in his own right. But one thing is clear: Nadal has not been the same player since sweeping last season's summer run, which included wins in Montreal, Cincinnati and, of course, the US Open. And in January, Nadal suffered a surprising loss to eventual champion Stanislas Wawrinka in the Australian Open final. So what gives?

"I don't know," Nadal said. "I don't know. I think after what happened, not only the loss, the pain in my back that I had; I had to do treatment after Australia, not playing for three weeks. I played in Rio. After Rio, I had to stop for 10 or 12 days again because the back still hurt me. ...

"Physical performance is in good shape. No problems about that. Just keep working to try to find the solution for next week in Barcelona. I going to try to play well in there and fight for the matches."

The good news for Nadal is that there's plenty more tennis on the schedule before the French Open, where Rafa has won a record eight times, begins. So we should have more clarity on whether his Monte Carlo malaise was an aberration of if there is something more grave is going on.

Ferrer is no slouch on clay; it's far and away his best surface. But he had dropped 17 straight matches to Nadal on dirt, which is a staggering number no matter how you slice it. It had to be a special feeling to beat the guy who has eviscerated him time and time again, including last season in the French Open final.

Or not.

"Any final is more important than today," Ferrer told reporters. "Of course, important because I am in a semifinal of a Masters 1000. For me it's only one match in my career. Of course is not the most important."

Despite the long wait, Ferrer became only the fourth player to defeat Nadal multiple times on clay, joining Djokovic (three), Gaston Gaudio (three) and Roger Federer (two), according to the ATP World Tour.

Nadal's loss came a day after he notched his 300th career win on clay. And just how utterly dominant has Rafa been on dirt? His record now? An astonishing, if not near infallible, 300-22.

But like life, tennis is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately trade. After falling short, even if by narrow margins, in Melbourne, Indian Wells, Miami and now Monte Carlo, the four biggest tournaments of the year so far, Nadal has done little lately, if we're basing our assessment on winner's trophies.

"No frustration, no drama," Nadal said. "Just a tennis match. But at the end I prefer to win."
There’s just something about the Head Prestige. The name alone evokes cachet, given that this has been one of the most popular rackets in the business for decades.

So when I first demoed the pro version of this frame, I was understandably intrigued. First, full disclosure: I have read numerous other reviews that, for better or for worse, speak to the lighter iteration of the latest model, the Graphene. I, however, have generally been using rackets that after customization weigh in the 12oz neighborhood. So by the time, I was done swapping the manufacture grip to leather and adding another overgrip to round out the bevel, it was weighed in at 12.4 oz.

In other words, this stick had some beef for a nice, sleek stick. The feel right from the outset was smooth and comfortably soft, which is a result of its forgiving 63 stiffness. The ball jumped off the string bed with ease. It felt solid all around. Without question, the most important thing was to stay ahead of the ball, to make a staunch effort to rotate and contact the ball out in front (yes, tennis 101) and let the weight of the racket do the work.

The proliferation of lighter, whippy rackets have allowed players to wait longer and take last-minute violent swings to generate enormous topspin. That style won’t work well on the Prestige Pro. Make no mistake, this racket produces some pretty sweet spin with its open 16x19 string pattern, but with its weight north of 12 ounces, the plow-through was what really struck me -- especially for a player with a two-handed backhand.

I’ve used a good number of the latest rackets out there today, and I can honestly say the Graphene Prestige pro doesn’t remind me of any. I was surprised how vastly different this racket felt compared to the Graphene Radical. The latter is a little more harsh on off-center hitting, but much more maneuverable. The Prestige, as mentioned, was smooth and had more mass, but it required all the nuances you were taught growing up. If you’re late striking the call, it’ll be difficult to compensate with the Prestige.

Serves were plush, easy to pound, especially flat serves. The balance (only five points head light) helped generate speed without 100 percent excursion. Accuracy was no problem, whether it was kicking serves out wide or hitting flat serves down the T. I had few problems sticking volleys where I wanted them to go. And the feedback on both the serve and volley was exactly what you’d expect.

If there’s one obstacle I had with the Prestige, it was playing defensively, or more specifically, it was trying to stay in points and then generate offense. That’s a weight issue, though. If you’re a competitor who can regularly wield a true player’s stick, you might prefer the ease it takes to counterpunch and let the weight of the racket do the work for you.

All in all, the newest Prestige is going to be a popular racket for 4.5-5.0 players. I personally think the Graphene Radical (customized with a leather grip and a half inch added) suited my game better, only because I could swing through it with more fluidly. But I would also guess, that many others would prefer the Prestige.

But if you’re a competitive player searching for a new frame, don’t make any purchases without trying this one. You might very well regret it.
When I first picked up the Head Graphine Radical Pro, I was intrigued.

It had a near-perfect weight for producing strong, plush shots at 11.5 ounces and a moderately heavy swing weight. Plus, the radical line has had a long lineage of popular rackets. The last time I used one, however, was nearly 10 years ago, when I had purchased two oversize Liquid Medal Radicals. I remember how flexible and comfortable hitting was, especially for a 107 head. Groundies were aggressive and maneuverable, and serves, while lacking some control given the oversized surface area, produced some serious zip.

But the latest version of this line was radically different, so to speak. As a matter of fact, judging by the specs, the Graphine Radical Pro is quite a change in direction from previous iterations.

The bottom line: If you’re seeking controlled power, this stick has an ideal blend of both.

In the past few years, I’ve been more inclined to pick up more control-oriented rackets than I had previously. The trade-off, of course, is that the further down the control spectrum you go, the less power rackets yield, generally speaking anyway.

And then I took a few swings with the Head Graphine Radical Pro, Andy Murray's choice of rackets. Surprise, surprise. Not only was there some serious jump off the string bed, but the stiffer frame helped alleviate wild shots. Actually, the use of “stiff,” which to some has an unfavorable connotation, in tennis-tech parlance anyway, might be the wrong description here. This racket was extraordinary stable -- and comfortable. Unlike the Liquid Metal, which had a springboard effect -- one that regularly engendered extra-base hits off the back fence -- the Graphine technology, which is a material as light as titanium and as string as a diamond according to the above video, helped keep the ball in the court.

As matter of fact, I found myself stepping into the ball and hitting cleaner strokes. The combination of power and control created confident hitting all around.

I did find myself lowering the string tension to around 48 pounds with a hybrid gut/poly combo the second time I went out. I really enjoyed returning serve with this stick. Blocking the ball back with a beam that registers around a 68 on the stiffness scale was fluid and easy. Sticking volleys was cake.

I place a small amount of lead tape on the head, somewhere in the 9 to 10 o’clock area, but the Graphine Radical actually has some meat up top to begin with.

The other thing I did was add a leather grip and an additional overgrip to the 4½ handle to square up the bevels (just personal preference). Head historically has a rectangular shape to its handles.

If there’s one shortcoming, despite the ease in which I could take some massive cuts, I wasn’t fully able to generate the spin and torque I typically find in more flexible rackets. But like any new piece of hardware, slight adjustments, like making a staunch effort to get under the ball, helped. But if the tradeoff is more control, then it’s a win, especially in this day and age of tennis in which baseline bashing in commonplace. But after 20-30 minutes of hitting, I figured out slight mechanical nuances to generate good spin, which to many players should come easily given the racket’s open 16-19 string pattern.

But I found this racket ideal for players who have both compact, classic swings and for those who take longer, more contemporary hacks.

I have a decent amount of sticks in my bag. Some make the cut, some don’t. This one did by a mile.
It turns out less could me more, at least when it comes to tennis rackets.

The contemporary game has gone through various stages. But if you haven’t heard, spin is in. So in late 2013 Prince decided to go extreme. Extreme spin that is.

By truncating the number of strings, Prince introduced its Extreme String Pattern (ESP) line. The idea is that a more open pattern will allow players to hit with increased spin. Most sticks have either 16 or 18 main (vertical) strings. There are generally 18-19 cross strings (horizontal) in today’s rackets. But Prince created a series of eight rackets that have either a 14x16 or 16x16 pattern.

The effect is indeed spin, spin and, yes, more spin. I have no way of judging the revolution of a tennis ball, but a simple eye test if all you really need to see that the ESP rackets are far more than a ploy for players looking to generate more gyration. Granted, it took a few minutes to get accustomed to the feel off the string bed. It felt a little loose, both figuratively and literally. But once I became acclimated, you could see the ball drop far more violently, reminiscent (in baseball parlance) of the bottom dropping out of a pitch.

Prince claims you’ll see an increase of 30 percent more spin, which sounds about right. Recently, I player-tested to of the company’s ESP frames: the Tour 98 and Tour 100T.

The Tour 98 is a frame that will cater to players on a wide spectrum because, along with excess spin, it generates controlled power, which is not something I was expecting when I first picked it up. If you like a more dampened feel, this racket is a smart choice, given that you get a clean response on off-speed hitting like drop shots and slice. It was a racket that felt an extension of your arm; in other words, there was nothing cumbersome about this stick.

If there were any shortcomings, volleys felt a little unstable. But that also comes down to personal preference. I like a stiffer racket at net, but like groundstrokes, it just takes a little court time to conform to the specs. But make no mistake, this racket generated heavy hitting, more than I have been able to produce with almost any of today’s rackets, except …

The Tour 100T ESP

On the surface, I didn’t think I was going to like it as much. It’s a little lighter than the Tour 98 (11.1 oz strung compared to 11.5 oz) and with a 16x16 string pattern, I thought it might generate the same kind of discomfort as trying to throw a wiffle ball 100 mph. There’s just not enough mass.

But I was wrong. The Tour 100 played more like the Prince EXO3 Tour 100, which is the racket I’ve used for the past two years. Groundstrokes felt solid, but with a discernible difference in spin, especially off my forehand. The Tour 100T ESP is a racket that lends itself to customization. With a decent amount of lead tape, which I placed around 3 and 9 o’clock, the racket suddenly felt more stable. The modern game is geared toward baseline bashing, with topspin the salient aspect, of course. So adding a little weight really helps hitting through the ball, the plush effect if you will.

Maneuverability was great; I especially noticed how easy it was to swing seamlessly through a serve and still produce good pop, even with a trimmed-down string pattern.

Both the Prince Tour ESP 98 and Tour 100T ESP performed as advertised. And if you’re going to give these a whirl, we encourage you to hit for 20-30 minutes to get used to the spin-friendly specs before making any judgments. And don’t be afraid to add a little weight for stability. It’s a combo that will help any player generate more juice, especially at the 4.0-4.5 level.

And the beauty of both these rackets is that you can take a full swing without fearing you’re going to be taking batting practice and hitting balls off the back of the fence.

If Stefan Edberg believes in the theory of threes, he might consider swapping out his flashy blue, yellow and gold Swedish threads for something a little more camouflage.

On Thursday, Andy Murray split with coach Ivan Lendl after two-plus years, leaving the Scott coachless as he attempts to defend his Sony Open crown.

And now, Boris Becker is taking a hiatus after undergoing surgery to repair both of his hips, leaving world No. 2 Novak Djokovic without the guidance of his most recent mentor.

Not that Roger Federer needs any advice or anything, but if we could indulge him for a moment, he should ante up whatever protection he and his camp have, assuming they subscribe to the threesome conspiracy, and shield his merger with Edberg from the wrath of whatever evil is headed his way.

But the question is, how’s this going to play out?

Well, the obvious answer is for Murray to swipe Edberg. If you haven’t heard, he’s in hot pursuit of a new mentor. And why not Edberg? Unlike the Lendl-Murray marriage, one fraught with upside-down smiley faces, the genial Edberg would add welcome sunshine on a day-to-day basis.

Now, looks can be deceiving, of course. Lendl has always maintained that he and Murray had a fun working relationship and that ubiquitous scowls were misconstrued, but c’mon, we’re talking about a coach with eight Slams on his dossier and a student who ended a seven-plus decade of British futility at Wimbledon. Smile, people!

With the caustic Murray and Edberg, a gentleman if there ever was one, joining forces, this can’t be anything less than a successful alliance.

What about Rafael Nadal? Could he pilfer the serene Swede? How cruel would that be? Not only has Rafa singlehandedly wrecked Federer with all those ruthless forehands to the Swiss’ one glaring weakness, his backhand, but imagine if the two met in the Sony Open final and Edberg and Uncle Toni we sitting cheek to cheek in the stands donning matching “Vamos!” t-shirts?


There are a multitude of reasons why Edberg and Federer could dissolve as swiftly as they were united earlier this year, but none that make very much sense. Perhaps something as simple as a passport issue could prevent Edberg from traveling. Maybe he wants to attempt a doubles comeback a la Martina Hingis, and doesn’t have time to pull off double duty.

According to a Bureau of Labor Statistics report last year, over eight million people have simply vanished from the U.S. workforce. I don’t know what that number is worldwide, but a simple extrapolation means a whole lot more have suffered the same fate.

No matter how you slice it, there is something to the theory of threes, even if just anecdotally. People like to see things in patterns, and in general, we’re all a victim of superstition.

It may all be just a cruel fallacy, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t worry about Edberg-Federer somehow breaking bad.

Tomic-Nieminen vs. Isner-Mahut

March, 21, 2014
Mar 21

If you’re the compassionate type, you have to feel for Bernard Tomic, as much as you can for a guy whose Wikipedia page has 16 paragraphs dedicated to his career controversies.

But aside from the purported tanks, feuds, suspensions, saucy lap dances and daddy issues, he’s still a professional tennis player, and a talented one at that.

On Thursday, however, Tomic probably wishes he was in another police standoff after he was utterly embarrassed at the Sony Open, losing 6-0, 6-1 to Jarkko Nieminen in record-setting fashion.

The numbers, ugly as they were, looked like this:

•  The match lasted just 28 minutes, the shortest match since the ATP started tracking time in 1991

•  Tomic won a paltry 13 points in the match

•  Tomic won only six of 17 points on his first serves

•  Nieminen blinked only twice during the entire encounter

So instead of riding on the tailcoat of former Aussie greats, which was the plan all along, Tomic continues his tailspin into the netherworld of tennis. And though one match isn’t a cause for such hyperbole, it’s hard not to be down on a guy who has been touted as highly as Tomic, but also for someone who has continually been a centerpiece of mediocrity at best.

Since the beginning of 2011, Tomic has a strung together a modest 71-67 record, which means, yes, he’s only four games over .500. His ranking has plummeted to 74th in the world.

Now to be fair to Tomic, he’s coming off a two-month layoff after having surgery on both hips. And as Kamakshi Tandon wrote here, it's possible the ATP forced Tomic to play. His level of play will improve, but still, a record, as unflattering and dubious as this one was, is still a record.

So, you ask, how does this compare to the John Isner-Nicolas Mahut three-day, 11-hour, 5-minute marathon that ended 70-68 in the fifth set at Wimbledon four years ago?

The scoreboard

Isner-Mahut: At 47-47 in the fifth set, the scoreboard couldn’t count anymore and, in technical terms, it went kaput.

Nieminen-Tomic: It's still warming up.

The ball kids

Isner-Mahut: On the second day, 28 ball kids were rotated in and out of the match (that would have been one per point in the Nieminen-Tomic match), knowing this epic might not end -- ever.

Nieminen-Tomic: A standard tennis match is composed of six ball kids. But legend has it that given the record-setting haste, three of them were still lathering sunblock back in the locker room as the match concluded.

Free points

Isner-Mahut: Combined, they swatted a record-whopping 216 aces in the three-day match.

Nieminen-Tomic: Something Tomic could use, if you know what we mean.

Proliferation of perspiration

Isner-Mahut: Total number of towel-offs during the match -- 380.

Nieminen-Tomic: Winner never broke a sweat.

The aftermath

Isner-Mahut: Isner landed a spot on Letterman and threw out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium later that summer. There are plenty of reminders and relics from their match on display at the International Tennis Hall of Fame and on the grounds of the All England Club.

Nieminen-Tomic: No late-night calls yet.

The word on the street

Isner-Mahut: “This match wasn’t about tennis. It was heart, perseverance, will, gumption and survival.”

Nieminen-Tomic: “When does Nieminen-Tomic begin?”
video Alexandr Dolgopolov was 0-5 against Rafael Nadal coming into their third-round match at Indian Wells, including a loss in the Rio final two weeks ago. But the 25-year-old from Ukraine not only proceeded to beat the world No. 1 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (5) but did it after losing a 5-2 lead in the third set and being 4-2 behind in the third-set tiebreaker. A look at five things that helped him do it:

1. He was clutch when it got close

Even after going from 5-2 to 5-5 in the third-set tiebreaker, Dolgopolov didn't write himself off. "I knew I'm playing well enough to win," he said. "The point was not to get too nervous."

And though his first-serve percentage was only 40 percent, Dolgopolov came up with 11 aces, and, he noted, "those big moments, I had a lot of good serves."

2. Different day, different surface

In Rio de Janeiro, on clay courts, Dolgopolov played error-prone tennis and made it close only when Nadal was serving for the match. At Indian Wells, it was almost the other way around.

"I think I played much better today," he said. "It was hard court. I returned well and I had a day to practice with a lefty, so there was a lot of differences."

3. He's being coached by his father again

The Ukrainian's unrestrained variety and shot-making make him entertaining to watch -- but hard to coach.

Dolgopolov says that so far he has found only two people he feels comfortable working with, one of them his father -- an established tour coach who taught him the game. After trying out Fabrice Santoro at the beginning of the year, Dolgopolov is back with his father for the first time in a few years.

"Mostly I'm coached by my dad now," he said. "I think it's not for people to understand some different game. Some people have their view on tennis, and if they coach someone, they try to make him play like they want."

4. He's in good shape again

After making the quarterfinals of the 2011 Australian Open and being in the top 20 for two years, Dolgopolov struggled last year but says he is now well-positioned to move back up.

"Last year, I didn't really have good preparation," he said. "I was injured after Australia. I had to play the Davis Cup injured and got even more injured. It was a messy year.

"This year, I had a month for preparation. I did it quite well," he said. "Even when I lost in the start of the season, I was playing good."

5. He's trying to boost Ukraine

Dolgopolov released a video last week with messages for Ukraine from fellow pros -- Nadal among them. Now, he's the one providing some positive moments for his homeland as it deals with recent government upheaval and conflict with Russia.

"As I said, it's good to make some results and make the people forget a little bit and have some happy moments in the news, [something] except the politics," he said.

Nadal’s account

"I played bad," was Nadal's simple explanation, while his opponent was "much better" than their last match. He added that his back injury was not the reason for a subpar performance. "I didn't have bad feelings with my back. The bad feelings was with the forehand and with the backhand."

The world No. 1 described his performance as "unusual" given that he's been playing well in practice. But having two unorthodox players in his first two rounds -- Radek Stepanek and Dolgopolov -- probably didn't help.

"I played two opponents that probably didn't help me to get the rhythm in the tournament," Nadal said.

He is already turning his attention to his next event: "Try to rest few days and be fresh mentally, and I hope to be ready for Miami."
Lauren Davis' 6-0, 7-6 (2) win over No. 4 Victoria Azarenka in the second round of the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells, Calif., is a result that requires some explanation. Here are five things that helped decide the outcome.

1. Azarenka wasn't ready

The Belarussian hurt her foot three days before the Australian Open and had to wear a walking boot for three weeks after the event. She had been practicing again for less than a week before Indian Wells.

The injury flared up again early in the first set when she ran for a ball and twisted her foot, Azarenka said.

"Obviously, it was maybe a little bit too early," she said. "But I gave it a fight, you know. She played well, but I just felt I was trying to battle my own issue."

After falling behind quickly, Azarenka grew increasingly frustrated, smashing her racket and berating herself during the tiebreak.

2. Azarenka wasn't ready to retire

Although her coach, Sam Sumyk, advised her to retire, Azarenka played on. Once known for frequently calling it quits in matches, she has recently insisted on playing matches to their conclusion.

At the WTA Championships in Istanbul, she said part of the reason was the criticism she had received for retiring. After Friday's loss, she said she wants to teach herself to tough things out. "I want to learn how to go through the tough thing, how to try the best in the toughest situation," Azarenka emphasized. "You've got to learn to win in bad situations."

3. Azarenka's serve wasn't working

It's not clear whether the injury affected Azarenka on serve, but her poor serving certainly affected the result. Azarenka had 12 double faults, got in only 52 percent of her first serves and won 22 percent of her second serve points.

4. Davis was ready

Davis is small but can pack a decent punch. With a nearly full stadium cheering her on, the 20-year-old American went after her shots from the very first game and quickly won the first set. And even though she struggled when the match tightened in the second, 66th-ranked Davis kept fighting and won the tiebreak convincingly for her first top-10 win.

"I focused all day. I had to believe in myself, and I did," Davis said in her courtside interview.

5. Davis is a tough opponent for an injured player

With her fast legs and assertive play, Davis was able to play extended points and keep the ball deep, exposing Azarenka's own hampered movement.

Q&A with Lauren Davis

Q. Just talk a little bit about how you feel your year is going so far?

A. The year is going great so far. I had a really good start to the year, had a great offseason -- one of the best I've ever done.

Q. Third round of the Australian Open. Does that feel like a big step forward?

A. Yeah, it does. That really boosted my confidence. It was my first time in the third round of a Grand Slam, so really happy with that.

Q. Do you see [this] as an important season to take the next step forward?

A. Yeah, I don't have any [Grand Slam] points to defend ... nor do I have that many points to defend otherwise, so just looking at it as a great opportunity.

Q. Just talk a little bit about what you see as the strengths of your game.

A. I move really, really well. I know I'm small, but I'm very, very strong, so I generate a lot of power and I have really good racket head speed. I'm a good baseliner, and I can kind of stay in there, I feel, longer than my opponents.

Q. Do you feel there are any limitations because of your size?

A. No, I don't feel there are any limitations at all. Because, I mean, girls who are 6 feet don't have things that I have. And me being 5-foot-2, I don't have some assets that they do have, but I think they equal each other out.

You know what they say across tennis circles: Every once in a while an Ivan Ljubicic comes along. Never did that maxim seem more appropriate than in the desert of California four years ago.

Ljubicic was a gifted player who reached as high as No. 3 in the world. But he wasn’t exactly a guy who regularly turned lemons into lemonade, if you know what we mean. But the Croatian’s title at Indian Wells in 2010, which included wins over Rafael Nadal in the semis and Andy Roddick in the final, was possibly his career moment.

Not only that, it kind of came out of nowhere, at least when you look at the recent line of Indian Wells winners. You may have heard of the last three: Nadal in 2013, Roger Federer in 2012 and Novak Djokovic in 2011.

And before Ljubicic in 2010, in descending order, were Nadal, Djokovic, Nadal, Federer, Federer, Federer, Lleyton Hewitt, Hewitt and Andre Agassi -- players who won a combined 46 majors. Not bad, eh? The recent history in California is pretty clear: Only the elite players have mastered the biggest tournament on the tennis calendar after the Aussie Open. Unless you’re Ljubicic, of course.

Life has been more than comfortable for the Big Four, as if you didn’t know. And it probably won’t come as much of a surprise that in the past 34 Masters 1000 events, they’ve won 32. If you’re doing the math at home, that’s a pretty favorable ratio. But not as absolute as last year’s results in last season's Masters events, which were swept by Nadal (five), Djokovic (three) and Andy Murray (one).

And why should anything change this year? After all, Nadal is your world No. 1 and well-rested. Djokovic whiffed in Dubai -- but his loss came against a rejuvenated Roger Federer. And even though Djokovic hasn’t yet won a title this season, he’s still very much the dynamic player he has always been -- at least there’s little indication he won’t turn things around.

The only major concern is for Murray, who has a middling 12-4 record in 2014 and who is just a few months removed from minor back surgery. He hasn’t advanced past the semifinals this season.

The majors, of course, are what we all pay attention to, but the nine Masters Series on the ATP calendar are eminently important, especially when you consider the guys who have triumphed the most in any season dating to 2006 (with the exception of 2007) have ended the year ranked No. 1 in the world.

The bottom line is that Indian Wells, if nothing else, is a catalyst for the top players to set the tone, to give someone momentum heading into Miami, then the taxing clay season in April. And though Ljubicic, who was one of the game’s premier workhorses, was a wonderful story and won a lucrative tourney he was deserving of, the desert in California is (news flash!) all about the Big Four and which member masters the year’s first Master.

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- It was a match between familiar faces as top-seeded Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer met for the 32nd time in their career, this time at the Dubai Duty Free Championships.

Federer came from behind for a 3-6, 6-3, 6-2 win and will be playing on Saturday for his sixth Dubai.

This rivalry is the seventh-most-contested matchup in the Open era, and Federer came into the ring -- er, the court -- with a 16-15 edge. Interestingly, they were in a dead heat on wins on hard-court surfaces at 12-12 before this semifinal broke that tie in Federer’s favor.

Coming into the match, Djokovic had won three straight over Fed, and nine of the last 12 dating back to the 2011 Australian Open semifinals. Djokovic twice had three consecutive wins over Federer during that span but had not beaten him four matches in a row, and that streak remains intact.

So what did we learn on Friday? Here are five things:

1. Federer never gives up: One trait Federer prides himself on is never giving up. Whether he’s leading or trailing, he keeps on going, believing if he hangs in long enough he’ll find an way to get back in the match. That’s exactly how he played it against Djokovic. Fed watched the first set go by fairly easily, surrendering his first service game in the match to give Djokovic an early 2-0 lead. But Federer dug in his heels after that, and after he broke Djokovic’s serve in the sixth game of the second set, the momentum shifted.

He solidified that shift when he broke Djokovic’s serve in the opening game of the third and added a bonus break in the fifth game. When Federer went jogging out to his side of the court with a 5-1 lead and Djokovic waiting to serve, he was sending a clear message: Even at 32, he's still spry and able to turn a match around against a high-quality player.

2. The Federer-Edberg partnership is working: Federer appears to be listening to the advice part-time coach Stefan Edberg is giving. That message is likely a strong suggestion that Federer needs to establish a better relationship with the net. Federer spoke a number of times this week about interesting conversations with his new mentor.

Edberg must be promoting the benefits of the serve-and-volley, as well as the best way to transition from a defensive position to an offensive one. Fed can volley -- and volley well -- but too often spends time hanging back behind the baseline. Why work so hard if you don’t have to? And at age 32, playing catch-up is probably not the best strategy. Once Federer started to approach and volley in the match he had the advantage and forced Djokovic into a more defensive position. It’s a strategy Federer should stay with to help him remain relevant. (On a side note, Edberg is not here in Dubai this week.)

3. Djokovic failed to adjust: Djokovic was clearly comfortable when Federer offered him the early lead. He likes to be a front-runner, which he was throughout the first set. But once Federer rebounded in the second set, Djokovic didn’t change his game to counter the strategy changes Federer made. Djokovic hired Boris Becker with the hope Becker can help him mentally close out matches he should win, and this semifinal match against Federer was exactly the type of match Djokovic had in mind. Djoker had the early edge and gave it away. Maybe Djokovic should try to steal some Becker tips on being aggressive, being comfortable coming to net and when at the net. It might be a better use of Becker’s salary and time.

4. Tennis and home life are meshing for Fed: Federer has made a habit of separating his home life mode from his tennis life, whether here in Dubai (where he maintains an apartment) or at home in Switzerland, when playing a tournament he normally checks into a hotel and lives a tournament lifestyle. He spoke earlier in the week about it helping him to put his game face on.

This time around, however, he’s done something unusual by staying at his own place, saying his twin daughters seemed settled at home and he didn’t want to disrupt that by packing up and pulling into the hotel. While many players are addicted to routine -- hello, Rafael Nadal -- Federer seems to be able to adapt himself to new situations, something that fatherhood probably has had a hand in. With a new child on the way, that can only be a continued plus.

5. Dubai belongs to Federer: Any way you look at it, both Federer and Djokovic enjoy playing here at Dubai. Federer’s won this title five times and Djokovic has been champion four times, including just last year. They came into the match having played in Dubai twice before to a split decision: Federer won their quarterfinal outing in 2007, while Djokovic won their meeting in the 2011 final. Their individual records in Dubai: 41-5 for Federer, 30-4 for Djokovic.

Still, Dubai remains Federer's domain. He spends a lot of time living in the city, trains here often, and the fans who sometimes run into the Federer family in local restaurants were clearly in his corner in this matchup with their constant “Roger, Roger, Roger” chants. There’s nothing like having a stadium in your corner. There were Djokovic fans, of course, but Federer was the clear favorite, and that helped him find the winning side.
They gathered together at the Australian Open, but since then the Big Four have been doing their own thing, from rehab to Davis Cup to vacation. They've also scattered in the rankings -- though Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic remain No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, Andy Murray has fallen to No. 6 and Roger Federer to No. 8. But they remain the most closely followed players in tennis, so here's a look at what they've been up to as they prepare to return to tournament play over the next week or two.

Rafael Nadal

After nearly a year without injury interruptions, Nadal again experienced physical problems at the Australian Open -- most significantly when his back acted up partway through the men's final against Stanislas Wawrinka. Though it severely hampered his play during much of the second and third sets, medical examinations later showed the problem was only a strain that would recover with a few days' rest.

Since then, the world No. 1 has also revealed how difficult he found the situation. "I knew I had no chance of winning, but I had no intention of retiring,” Nadal said to a Spanish radio station last week. “It was the worst hour and a half that I have spent on a tennis court," he said, adding that the loss had lingered longer than most.

Nadal resumed physical training last Tuesday and was scheduled to begin hitting again Thursday. Later that day, however, he announced that he was pulling out of this week's event in Buenos Aires because of a stomach virus. "It makes it impossible for me to arrive with the adequate preparation to compete in such an important and demanding tournament," he said in a video message.

He is still entered in the inaugural Rio event next week.

Though his start to this season has been disrupted, Nadal continues to receive accolades for his remarkable achievements last season, when he won two of the three Grand Slams he played, a record-tying five Masters events and reached the final in 14 of 17 tournaments. Those achievements saw Nadal awarded for sporting excellence at the annual Mundo Deportivo Gala, following similar recognition in 2007 and 2008. Last year, Nadal was voted the best Spanish athlete ever by readers of Spanish sporting newspaper Marca.

Roger Federer

Although Nadal has been making headlines for pulling out of a tournament, Federer caused an even bigger stir by making a surprise appearance in one. As usual, the 17-time Grand Slam champ had implied he would be skipping the first round of Davis Cup, having played at that stage only once since 2004. But a day before Switzerland was due to take on Serbia in the team competition, news broke had Federer would be joining his new fellow Grand Slam champ Wawrinka and the rest of the team for the contest. "Look who I found in Novi Sad ..." Wawrinka wrote on Twitter alongside a photo of him, Federer and team captain Severin Luthi shortly after Federer's participation had been made public.

Wawrinka had known in advance that Federer would be there, having been involved in the discussions during the days leading up to the tie. For most, however, it was a surprise. The story goes that at the airport, Serbia's team captain approached a recently arrived visitor and told him he looked remarkably like Roger Federer, only to discover that he was talking to the tennis legend himself.

It all culminated in Switzerland posting an easy win against the Serbs, who were missing Djokovic and their next two highest-ranked players. Federer then announced he would also take part in the quarterfinal tie against Kazakhstan in April, strengthening the impression that he has fully committed to his country's Davis Cup campaign this year. His return, combined with the emergence of Wawrinka as a Grand Slam force, means the Swiss team is now a heavy favorite to lift the Cup for the first time.

After an exhilarating but exhausting month, Wawrinka pulled out of this week's event in Rotterdam with a leg injury, while Federer is scheduled to be back on court at Dubai in two weeks' time.

Novak Djokovic

Had Djokovic also been playing for the Serbs against Switzerland, it would have been a blockbuster tie. But like Federer, Djokovic had announced his intention to skip the tie, and unlike Federer, did not change his mind. It was an understandable decision. Even with Djokovic, the undermanned Serbs would have been underdogs, and he also took part in last year's November final when the team suffered a frustrating loss to the Czech Republic.

But he kept himself occupied in the meantime. After being upset in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open by Wawrinka, the Serb headed for the hills -- or rather, the mountains. An avid skier, Djokovic hit the slopes in southern Serbia after returning from Down Under, and judging from these photos, he had a lot more success than he did in Australia. The Serb also paid a visit to a childhood court, posting a picture that showed scattered marks on the walls from the days of the Belgrade bombings. And when a snowstorm hit northern Serbia, leaving cars stuck roadside, he delivered supplies to stranded passengers. All in a few days' vacation for the world No. 2.

It looks like he may have even bigger off-court plans for the rest of the year. Last week, Djokovic also appeared on a Serbian talk show, where he suggested he and fiancée Jelena Ristic may be getting married shortly. "Jelena, enjoy it while you can. In a couple of months you will be changing your last name to Djokovic," he said.

On court, Djokovic has resumed training in Monte Carlo with his longtime coach Marian Vajda. Boris Becker, who is now coaching Djokovic at tournaments, does not appear to be present. The Serb's next outing -- like Federer -- is expected to be in Dubai.

Andy Murray

Meanwhile, scratch the wedding announcement for Murray. The Scot offhandedly mentioned during a Twitter Q&A that he and longtime girlfriend Kim Sears would be getting married after Wimbledon, and then quickly had to clarify he had only been joking. Other questions Murray was asked included whether he ate the grass after winning Wimbledon last year (“No, I smoked it,” he replied) and how often he's wanted to kill Nadal and Federer (“It's a daily occurrence,” was the answer).

Later, he posted, "3 things ... I don't smoke grass, I'm not getting married (yet) and I don't want to kill Rafael Nadal."

The impromptu session had been in honor of Murray defeating Davis Cup teammate James Ward 8-1 in Pro Evo, the soccer video game for PlayStation. Clearly, Ward bounced back quickly from that humiliating defeat. In the Davis Cup tie between Great Britain and the U.S., then-world No. 175 Ward beat No. 45 Sam Querrey -- a victory that, along with Murray's two singles wins, secured Britain the tie. It also saved Murray from perhaps having to play doubles during the tie, a welcome respite for someone starting their return from back surgery at the beginning of this season.

Murray had also been worried about how his back would feel playing on clay so soon after Australian Open hard courts. But it must have held up well because soon after he added another tournament to his schedule by taking a wild card into this week's event in Rotterdam. His entry helped boost the tournament field following Wawrinka's withdrawal.

Murray is also scheduled to play two weeks later in Acapulco, which switches to hard courts beginning this year.
Twelve seconds into the Super Bowl, the tone was set and the game was pretty much over. It wasn’t supposed to go down this way, not with one of the most prolific offenses in the history of the league, led by the play-calling wizardry of Peyton Manning on one side of the ball. But the Denver Broncos were so bad, it made Joe Namath’s coin-flip faux pas look like a Hall of Fame-worthy performance. Apparently, stifling defense is still en vogue, no matter how much the league has tried to transform itself into a collective scoring juggernaut.

So, in honor of the Seattle Seahawks' D, how about a look at the top five defensive players in tennis today?

1. Andy Murray

If anyone has ever needed an injection of offense into his game, it’s Murray -- or so we thought. You know the criticisms he faces by now: too passive, too patient, too stubborn. And then, of course, he won two majors and we never said another word. But win or lose, Murray is, by nature, a retriever -- and that seems to suit him and his trophy case just fine. Under the behest of Ivan Lendl, Murray has become more aggressive on the court in the past couple of years, but you won’t see the kind of ruthless power that you do from his big-four cohorts.

Brad Gilbert says: "Murray plays as much defense as anybody. Unlike [Novak] Djokovic and [Rafael] Nadal, who play defense when they want to, Murray is more comfortable hanging back and passing the ball back to his opponent. He wins using his legs. Nadal has brilliant defense, but it’s not the basis of his game. Relentless offense is. Murray likes to take the wind out of his opponent."

2. Agnieszka Radwanska

Touch, guile and patience seem like appropriate words to describe Radwanska. She’s a fairly nondescript player. There’s not that much of a visceral reaction when she comes into the spotlight -- much like Joe Namath, except not at all. But she’s one of the best players in the world at combating hard hitters. She is a former Wimbledon runner-up and a staple in the top five. She frustrated two-time defending champion Victoria Azarenka all day long in this year’s Australian Open quarters, much in part to her steadfast effort to play with patience.

Gilbert says: "Radwanska goes out there and says, 'OK, I’ll just put the ball in the court and make you run until you make mistakes.' She’s a little bit like Murray in that she’ll just keep returning the ball until you get impatient and start hitting the ball out and racking up errors. She makes you think you’re in the point until you lose your patience. Players like Radwanska and Murray shrink the size of the court."

3. Sara Errani

Two years ago, all 5-foot-4 of Errani entered the French Open with an 0-28 record versus top-10 opponents. It was (and still very much) is an era of muscle and raw power between the likes of Serena Williams, Azarenka and Maria Sharapova. But Errani, who is a scraper and clawer, reached the final in Roland Garros that year -- much of it a result of heart. Errani said the difference in her game was that she finally "believed." Who needs to clock serves at 120 mph when all you need is … belief? Errani, who just reached (but lost) the final of the Open GDF Suez in Paris, still remains the seventh-ranked player in the world.

Gilbert says: "Tremendous. She has great ability to trust her legs when playing. She tries to get to you by dribbling in slow serves 80 percent of the time and making you overhit. She wins with her legs."

4. Gael Monfils

If you’re looking for a good show -- some spine-tingling shot-making -- look no further than this Frenchman, who comes full of flare. Oh, and fraught with boneheaded decisions. You have to wonder what he would be capable of if he actually played up to his talent on a regular basis, but Monfils is athletic and agile, so much so that you might mistake him for a rubber band if you didn’t know any better. His game is very much predicated on retrieval and athleticism, even though he’s more that capable of adding juice to any of his shots.

Gilbert says: "If he just wants to play defense, he can run 10 corners like nobody else. The core of his game is defense, and he’ll sometimes play some offense when he’s in the mood. But Monfils came on to the tour as a counterpuncher, and that’s what he is today."

5. Lleyton Hewitt

The good news with Joe Namath’s presumptuous coin toss Sunday night was that no one noticed, given that they were probably horrified from all the fox, rabbits, minks and beavers that spared their lives to help keep the "Broadway" in Joe. Speaking of which, in 2001, Hewitt spent two weeks in the greater Broadway area, squelching the likes of Tommy Haas, Andy Roddick and, finally, Pete Sampras en route to winning the US Open. Now, 13 years later, Hewitt is far removed from his Slam-winning ways, but his retro style of play has been good enough to garner some impressive wins. Take, for instance, just a few weeks ago when the former two-time year-ending world No. 1 stunned Roger Federer in the final of Brisbane. Last year, Hewitt won on the grass of Halle and lost in the final of Newport. Not too shabby for someone who isn’t blessed with a rocket serve or groundies.

Gilbert says: "Hewitt, like Michael Chang, is a very good counterpuncher. Technically, perhaps counterpunching and defense might be considered two different things, but the bottom line is that Hewitt wins with his legs. His speed is incredible."

Who didn’t make the cut that you think might have?

David Ferrer

Take Ferrer’s dimensions, 5-foot-9, weighs about 160 pounds or so, and throw him into a cage with the lions and tigers that occupy the rest of the tennis space and see what happens. I mean, how can this little fella hang with likes of Juan Martin del Potro, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and, even though he hasn’t had many wins against them, the big four on a regular basis. Ferrer might not always come out on top, but he won’t go down without a skirmish. Since the beginning of 2012 (that’s nine Slams), Ferrer has made the quarters each and every time -- including the final of last year’s French Open. And he does 90 percent of his work with indefatigable defense. That’s right; just look up "Ferrer" in the urban dictionary, and you’ll find it means "to deliver venomous bites to bigger, stronger human beings." The success Ferrer has on this tennis court defies much of today’s modern, in-your-face game.

Gilbert says: "It’s a misconception. He’s small and fast, but if you hit the ball down the center of the court, Ferrer is going to crack it. He’s started to dictate play a lot more in recent years."

Dominika Cibulkova

The common backdrop here for most of these players is small size, and no one comes closer to ground level than Cibulkova, who stands 5-foot-3, or a foot shorter than the opponent she knocked out in the fourth round of the Aussie Open, Sharapova. It doesn’t take more than a cursory glance at her to realize she is a workout fanatic, and that showed in Melbourne. In her first three matches, that is six sets, she lost a total of nine games before skating by Sharapova. Then, Cibulkova, who reached her first-ever major final, crushed the 2013 comeback player of the year and 11th seed, Simona Halep and fifth-seeded Radwanska in the quarters and semis, respectively, losing just six games before running into Li Na in the final. It really was one of the more impressive runs in recent Grand Slam memory.

Gilbert says: "Cibulkova is a lot like Ferrer in that she’s small and quick, but in terms of execution, I look at her more in the vein of James Blake -- a player who had great speed but who’s basis was to be the first one to strike. She doesn’t hit balls down middle of court and doesn’t trust her legs like the other truly defensive players. She thinks power first."

Perhaps nothing speaks to the proliferation of cutting-edge technology more than that small child who wanders over to a window, presses on it and waits for an app to pop up. It might sound comical, but it’s the world we live in. Modernization has skewed their poor little minds. Heck, my kid knows cloud better as data-syncing storage space rather than the white stuff in the sky.

In the tennis world, Babolat has recently manufactured a racket with built-in sensors that measure power, impact and spin. We are a technology-dependent society, which means we have to keep up with the latest advancements to have any shot at a competitive edge.

Roger Federer has always been on top of his tennis game, but history shows he has been a little late to the digital-world dance. Not until May 23, 2013, did he have a Twitter account. Keep in mind there already were more than 500 million people registered at that point. And not until just a few weeks ago did the 17-time Slam champion decide to finally make the permanent move to a larger, more powerful, present-day racket.

“I've wanted to change for a number of years, but I kept on playing well in the Slams, kept on playing well on the tour,” Federer told reporters in his pre-tournament presser. “Things were just going so well I only did minor changes to my racket. Since 2002, I haven't fiddled around the racket-head size.”

First, give the man credit. Even after his days of dominating day in, day out ended, Federer still was one of the best players in the world, even with that underperforming relic. Until this past Wimbledon, he had reached 36 consecutive Grand Slam quarterfinals, a remarkable display of consistency on the biggest of stages.

But the bottom line is that he was being outhit and outmaneuvered by not just the Nadals and Djokovics (both of whom have been using advanced rackets for some time), but the likes of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Tomas Berdych were making Federer look every bit his three-plus decades of age.

After an experimental run last summer with a larger head, one that produced mixed results, Federer felt that bigger was the only way to get better.

“Now I've really been putting in a lot of hours on the racket,” Federer said. “It feels good. I'm really looking forward to playing now with that racket here at the Australian Open as well after playing Brisbane already.”

Federer played well in Brisbane until a barrage of shanks for a set and a half against Lleyton Hewitt in the final ended his run. But it was an auspicious start for a guy who is trying to sweep away last season’s doldrums.

Certainly the foundation of any great champion doesn’t start with only his equipment, but in a game in which spin, rapid-fire exchanges and response matter, every nanosecond counts. Federer was at a fairly large disadvantage, and by the time he made a concerted effort to catch up, he wasn’t in the right frame, so to speak, of mind.

“After Wimbledon this year, I finally had a bit more time and I'd like to do an initial test,” Federer said. “I was going to do some more after the US Open, but I wasn't in the mood for that, so I waited for the end of the year and did some more testing there.”

There’s an arms race between companies to innovate and produce the best performing equipment out there. Terms like ESP, Graphene and Amplifeel are now commonplace in the racket business. Though it might be too convoluted to dissect the various ingredients that make up today’s sticks, they do account for the unprecedented power and control in today’s game.

For Federer, whether we’re talking 140 characters or 98 square inches, technological awareness might not be his greatest gift, but he can adapt quickly. After joining the Twittersphere, Federer was pulling in record-setting traffic with more than 24,000 new followers an hour. Today, he is a social media star.

As for his on-court success? The truth is we don't know how much it will factor into his 2014 results, but he's certainly committed. And if he finds himself exiting tournaments early again, there's at least some small consolation: more time to tweet.

It’s a good omen when a new season begins and the biggest names in the game are already monopolizing the headlines. Serena Williams and Rafael Nadal won tuneups two weeks ago, while Roger Federer reached the Brisbane International final.

Now for the next two weeks, we’ll be snuggled in our sofas, watching the stars take a few swings at the Australian Open. But before they do, here are 10 predictions we absolutely know won’t go wrong (cough, cough) this season.

1. Serena Williams will not, under any circumstances, lose to Sloane Stephens, not at the Australian Open, not in 2014

Little did we know that last year’s Down Under shocker would devolve into such acrimony. The short story short goes something like this: Stephens upset Williams in the Aussie Open quarters. Soon afterward, Stephens claimed she had been ignored and then, in what is a far more heinous move, she was de-Twittered by Williams. Yikes! Both players later brushed off their feud, but the damage was done. Anyway, the bottom line is this: Sloane won’t beat Serena at the Aussie this time around. Of course, it’s a fairly easy prediction considering they’re on opposite sides of the draw. And you can tell all your Twitter followers you heard it here first: Sloane won’t beat Serena at all in 2014.

2. Rafael Nadal will end the season ranked No. 1

This isn’t to say he will be the best player in 2014. But Rafa simply has very few points to lose (with the exception of Indian Wells) until the clay season begins. And Novak Djokovic is the defending Aussie champ and played a full schedule last year. Plus, Nadal lost his Wimbledon opener, and with even a modicum of success in 2014, he’ll pile on more points. Even if Djokovic outplays Nadal for the entire season, he’s not going to make much of a move in the rankings until the summer hard-court season, and by then, it might be too late.

3. Novak Djokovic will be the best player in 2014

If you watched Djokovic in the year-end championships last year, you saw something different, whether it was a chip on his shoulder, vengeance or just exasperation for losing his No. 1 ranking. He was crisper, quicker and more determined than Nadal. Of course, you can read what you want into this, given it was the end of the year, and Rafa had already secured his status atop the tennis world. But Djokovic has always said that while losing is part of life, it’s what motivates him. And, oh by the way, his hiring of Boris Becker likely means we’re going to see some pretty sweet service improvement and aggression. Pair that with his already unequaled all-court game and, well, you get the picture.

4. Victoria Azarenka will get medical attention

Rhetorical question: What better way to quell the ultimate choke job than by calling a suspicious timeout? Give Azarenka credit, though: She isn’t afraid to stoop to any level to win. Stephens, who had just beaten Serena in Oz, was mounting a comeback against Azarenka in the semifinals when the Belarussian took a 10-minute T.O. while Stephens sat on the bench and waited -- and waited. Apparently, Azarenka needed assistance dislodging whatever was caught in her throat. Don’t think Azarenka won’t pull this stunt again in 2014.

5. Maria Sharapova will reach a Grand Slam final, try really hard -- and lose

In so many ways, Sharapova is a stark reminder of Andy Roddick. She tries hard, really hard. She wends her way fairly successfully through most draws but just doesn’t quite have the capacity to win on the biggest stages. In the past five seasons, Sharapova has but one Slam title. But she won’t stop trying, that’s for sure. She hired a new, proven coach in Sven Groeneveld. But the problem with Sharapova’s problem, aside from her serve shortcomings and heavy footwork, is that she will eventually have to get by Serena and/or Azarenka. Just doesn’t seem like it’s going to happen.

6. Roger Federer won’t finish the season ranked No. 1

Well, duh. The question is whether he’ll finish in the top 10. Federer finished outside the top five for the first time in a decade last season. Federer claims he’s healthy and determined. But he has a few problems: Djokovic, Nadal and his advanced 32-year-old body. The Aussie Open will be a strong indication, but even if he does well there, what’s to say he can hop into Miami and Indian Wells circa 2004-2007 and whip through the fields? So the question is: What’s a respectable year-end ranking for Fed? Top five? Top 10?

7. The ghost of Andy Murray will plague Great Britain for at least one year

You know it’s going to happen. Murray will say he’s under less pressure to win at his home in Wimbledon. But the reality is that although he thinks he believes that, he really doesn’t. Who among the British faithful will be sitting in front of his telly, thinking, “Eh, it doesn’t matter if Djokovic takes down our hero; he won last year”? The nerves and burden will be just as amplified as they’ve always been. But this time around, Murray isn’t going to give his people any kind of satisfaction.

8. Simona Halep will pass Caroline Wozniacki in the rankings

As it stands, Wozniacki is 10th and Halep 11th in the standings. Halep won six titles last year while Woz’s most notable headlines came from her very public relationship with Rory McIlroy. Wozniacki already lost in the second round of Sydney last week. Hey, don’t feel too bad for her. She’s sporting around a new five-carat rock these days.

9. Milos Raonic will make his breakthrough

For like a gazillion years, we’ve been waiting for someone to join, if not suppress, the seemingly impenetrable stranglehold the big four has created. It hasn’t happen. Not by Richard Gasquet back in the day, not by Grigor Dimitrov, Bernard Tomic or Ryan Harrison. Raonic has very much been a part of that group. Someone has to break through, no? Federer is aging, Nadal has cursed knees and Djokovic, well, never mind, he’s just stout. But there seems to be a window, albeit fairly narrow, for another player. Maybe it’ll be Juan Martin del Potro. But how can you hit as hard as Raonic, ace at will and not make some kind of move? It has to happen. It just has to.

10. John Isner’s season will look a lot like 2012 and 2013

Make no mistake, that’s not a bad thing. Isner finished 2012 ranked No. 14. Isner finished 2013 ranked No. 14. Good for him. The dude can leverage his cannon of a serve better than anyone. But you can’t teach returns, and footwork and shot selection, not at least to the level Isner needs to improve. He may very well unleash ace after ace for a few rounds at a major event. But eventually his ceiling will catch up to him. It’s just the way it is. Finish 2014 ranked No. 14, Izzy. And be proud of that.
We could be wise and resist reading too much into the first week of ATP and WTA tour play for 2014, but what fun would that be?

Besides, since the offseason in tennis is short, we can expect the players to be in pretty good fighting trim for the start of the New Year. The postseason holiday break and the whole "Auld Lang Syne" thing encourages everyone to hit the reset button, psychologically. But does anyone really expect that things have changed that much?

Not Serena Williams, that’s for sure. And she proved it by busting out her whooping stick and beating No. 3 Maria Sharapova and No. 2 Victoria Azarenka in back-to-back matches to win Brisbane.

For all the hype that surrounds Sharapova, it was Williams’ win over Azarenka in the final that was truly noteworthy, for as ESPN’s Howard Bryant was the first to emphatically argue, Azarenka is 32-year-old Williams’ true rival -- at least in terms of the quality of the matches. It may all be splitting hairs to Serena though. The real takeaway is: “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”

That brings us to Auckland, and a much more newsworthy event if you believe the old definition of “news” (“dog bites man” is not news; “man bites dog” is news). Venus Williams, now 33 and ranked just inside the top 50 when the week began, lost a tight three-setter to French Open champion and former No. 1 Ana Ivanovic. Will she make one more push in 2014? Could it be that Williams’ will can help her raise Cain this year?

Another pair of 32-year-olds played the final in the ATP Brisbane event (how many 32-year-old tennis icons can the ATP and WTA support, anyway?). Like the other two men’s events last week, Brisbane is an ATP 250, but the promoters obviously didn’t open up their wallets the way the oil-rich sheiks of Doha did. Federer, ranked No. 6, was top-seeded. The No. 2 seed was No. 17 Kei Nishikori.

Despite being the odds-on favorite, Federer found a way to lose a three-setter to multiple Grand Slam champ and former No. 1, ATP No. 60 Lleyton Hewitt (who’s also 32).

Hewitt was 8-18 against Federer going in, but had been unable to beat the Swiss between the Australian Open of 2004 and Halle in 2010; in fact, Federer probably was the main reason Hewitt never won his native Grand Slam (although a number of players might challenge Hewitt for that honor). But Hewitt has won two of their past three meetings, which suddenly makes this something unbelievable: a real, hot rivalry.

So here’s my first prediction for 2014: Federer will draw Hewitt (who’s jumped to No. 43) as his first-round opponent in Australia.

Li Na won the tournament in Shenzhen, China. Her final–round victim was fellow countrywoman Peng Shuai, who’s ranked just No. 42. But Li is under a lot of pressure when she plays at home, and has been known to turn her back and walk away from pressure rather than embracing it. So it’s a good sign for her that she handled the field so competently.

Doha had the most competitive field -- by far -- of all the first-week ATP events, and the way top-seeded Rafael Nadal was forced to fight to earn the title, surviving a three-set match in three of his five outings was ominous -- not for Nadal, but for his rivals.

Apparently, it never crossed Nadal’s mind to write off the desert sojourn as a nice chance to hit a few balls and collect a huge appearance check. While the likes of No. 2 seed David Ferrer, No. 3 Andy Murray, No. 4 Tomas Berdych and No. 5 Richard Gasquet all fell by the wayside without much fuss, Nadal once again gave his peers a lesson in competitive zeal -- and all-around brilliance.

In Chennai, Stanislas Wawrinka, the newest member of the ATP Top 10 club (he ended 2013 at No. 8) rolled like thunder through the field to bag his first title -- and perhaps show that he’s not done climbing the rankings ladder. One persuasive undercurrent last week is that while Nadal and Novak Djokovic (who doesn’t play before the Australian Open) may be untouchable, we could see a shake-up in slots three through 10.

Murray may round back into form after back surgery forced him into the long layoff in the fall, and No. 5 Juan Martin del Potro looks stable -- as does Wawrinka. But Ferrer, Federer, Berdych, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Gasquet all appear vulnerable -- albeit for different reasons. Are you ready for a game called top-10 musical chairs?