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Wednesday, December 17, 2008
Aussie Open a unique mental and physical test

On Feb. 1, about 12 hours after the men's singles champion is crowned at the Australian Open, the kickoff for Super Bowl XLIII will take place on the other side of the world in Tampa. But while the spectacle that is Super Bowl Sunday represents the culmination of an NFL season that opened five months earlier, tennis' first major championship arrives when the players have only been back on the competitive circuit for a few weeks.

Of course, the racket-wielding elite will already be in top fitness in time for the Aussie Open; no one shows up at Melbourne Park looking like CC Sabathia. Tennis is an extraordinarily grueling sport. With sprints and bursts and only short breaks between points (well, short unless you're the notoriously deliberate Rafael Nadal), a match is like an interval workout that goes on for hours. To cultivate both the explosiveness and the endurance that are required, most of the world's top players undertake ambitious conditioning programs during the brief offseason. (Andre Agassi, a fitness fiend during the second half of his career and the winner of three Australian Open titles between 2000 and 2003, made emetic hill sprints part of his legendary regimen.)

During the winter break, broken-down players must get healthy and get fit -- and find time to get away. Then once the new year starts, there are only a few events before the season's first Slam. Even for those who manage to find their best tennis during those tuneups, the Australian Open is a particularly punishing tournament, because the midsummer weather in Melbourne can be brutally hot. But beyond the physical challenges, the A.O. presents a unique mental test: Players must, in short order, muster the emotional fortitude to tackle one of the four most important events of the year.

It can't be easy to switch from decompression mode to dialed-in mode in a mere matter of weeks -- to go from the cushy life to the Plexicushion, from being served to receiving serve. No other professional sport requires its stars to make the transition from poolside towel-off to courtside towel-off so abruptly. The Masters is fairly early in the PGA Tour schedule, but there are three full months between when the season starts and when the golfing glitterati head to Augusta. The Red Sox and Yankees played six times in April 2007, and though those games might have been excessively hyped, they didn't technically matter any more than the other 156 games on the regular-season schedule.

But in tennis, the early-year showdown Down Under really counts. Consider 2008: If Roger Federer were to have made a run at becoming the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to win the calendar Grand Slam -- an incredibly tall order, but not unimaginable, given that he'd won three of the four majors (and made the finals of the fourth) in 2006 and '07 -- then of course he would have had to start the season with a victory at the Australian Open. But Federer lost in the semifinals to eventual champion Novak Djokovic. Only seven percent of the way into his season, he'd lost his chance at the Grand Slam.

The Australian Open is as isolated on the calendar as it is on the globe (from the perspective of players from North America and Europe, that is). The time gap between the first two majors of the year, the Aussie and the French, is nearly as long as the gap between the fourth major, the U.S. Open, and the following year's Aussie. Maybe that's why some relatively obscure players (Petr Korda and Thomas Johansson come to mind) won the lone major of their careers in January in Oz; they might have capitalized on the fact that some of their higher-ranked competitors weren't as ready to play.

I'm not arguing that the season be shortened -- at least not on the front end. Starting the year with a major championship brings near-immediate gratification to impatient fans who suffer from tennis withdrawal during the offseason. Especially now, when every Grand Slam represents a chance for Federer to tie Pete Sampras' record, the majors are particularly compelling. It might not be easy to play a schedule with majors from January to September, but the best athletes produce quality tennis on all surfaces, in all conditions -- and all throughout the year.