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Friday, January 2, 2009
Nothing wrong with players easing into new year

Very quietly, the early part of the tennis year has taken on a semblance of what the sport might look like were there less emphasis on a loaded calendar with valuable rankings points on the line as often as possible. For within a few days, the serious run-up to the Australian Open begins with a not-entirely-serious slate of events.

On the men's side, the year kicks off with Chennai, Brisbane and Doha -- all 250-grade events with minimal rankings points but potentially huge appearance fees and a prize-money structure that can only be described as puzzling: Despite theoretical parity, Doha is offering more than twice the payout of any of the other Australian Open warm-up events.

In fact, there isn't anything but ATP 250-level events until the first major of the year. The winner of a 250 gets a measly 250 ranking points (as compared to 2,000 for the winner of a major), which helps explain why two of the three events Roger Federer will play en route to Melbourne are diplomatically listed as "other" on his own Web site -- meaning they're neither ATP nor Grand Slam events. In other words, they're play-for-pay exhibitions.

This is what's called gilding the lily, and frankly I'm not sure there's a whole lot wrong with it. As the men's Sydney event showed, the bottom line is this: You can offer all the rankings points and prize money in the world, but the players still won't enter -- or if they do, aren't likely to overexert themselves -- if your date poses any threat to what they deem appropriate preparation for the Australian Open. Nobody wants to play very serious tennis before the proceedings get underway in Melbourne.

The women aren't quite as expert at gilding -- their tour leading up to Melbourne features three International (low-value) events and one premier (Sydney). What they don't list at the WTA Web site is the big, huge, giant Hong Kong exhibition that some of the top stars will play, presumably as a means to collect a bundle of cash without endangering their rankings or official head-to-head records. It's a nice way for them to sniff around each other before the serious action commences.

So while I have no doubt that there will be some good tennis played in the weeks before the Australian Open in Chennai (men) or Sydney (women's premier), we now have all the more reason to embrace the Hopman Cup -- that mixed-doubles exhibition that has seemingly been around forever. Paul McNamee, founder of the event, was prescient: He understood that the last thing players wanted to do during the first week of January was engage in meaningful hard-court combat. So he created an event that allows the players to embark on the new year in a relaxed, friendly and low-key manner.

In fact, the Hopman Cup has always had enormous potential as a novel event that can give the average sports fan a pretty good window into some of the unique aspects of tennis. These include the high performance level of which the women are capable, the entertainment value of doubles, and the degree to which, in this sport, men and women can play the game together on a level playing field. Mixed doubles can be as riveting as any other tennis format. Gender has little or nothing to do with it.