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Friday, January 4, 2013
They're just warming up

John Millman is 23 years old, ranked 199th in the world, and a gate-crasher at the first tennis ATP party of the year, the ATP 250 in Brisbane. To his credit, the native of Brisbane qualified for his place in the draw instead of slipping in as a wild card on the theory that he's a local attraction.

Millman further boosted his street credentials when he upset Japan's Tatsuma Ito in a convincing first round effort, 6-4, 6-1. And to top it off, Millman then stretched top-seeded Andy Murray to three sets in the second round before bowing 6-1, 5-7, 6-3.

Bernard Tomic
Bernard Tomic posted a big win over Novak Djokovic at the Hopman Cup earlier this week.

Top-ranked Novak Djokovic wasn't so lucky a few days ago at the Hopman Cup, an exhibition-style mixed doubles tournament. He was beaten by Aussie Bernard Tomic, aka Tomic the Tank Engine, who has a lot to atone for in 2013 following a spectacularly messy year.

In 2012, he morphed from Wimbledon quarterfinalist and promising, if not mercurial, prodigy into an angry young dude (he just turned 20) who's been accused by some of Australia's senior tennis icons of tanking at both the French and U.S. Opens.

Tennis is under way for 2013, and the jockeying has begun.

Did you see that Caroline Wozniacki, who dropped from No. 1 to No. 10 in the last 12 months, rang in the new year with a first-round loss in Brisbane to qualifier Ksenia Pervak? Did you notice that No. 7 seed and 2011 U.S. Open champ Samantha Stosur, an Aussie, lost at the same stage to No. 41 Sofia Arvidsson?

The message seems to be that nobody is safe these days, but the reality is that the real sorting out won't begin until the Australian Open is over, or close to it.

It used to be that players who worked extra hard during the brief offseason arrived Down Under with an edge. One reason Andre Agassi was so successful in Melbourne (four titles) is because he famously ran wind sprints up a 320-yard hill in Las Vegas 14 times a day in December; even on New Year's Eve, Andre put the pop of muscles over that of champagne corks.

Nowadays, most everyone works diligently during late November and December and arrives in Australia prepared. The problem for the Milllmans and Pervaks of this world is that the while the top players are in excellent shape, they treat the warm-up events that precede the Australian Open as dress rehearsals, clinging to the precious little time they have before the Grand Slam derby kicks off.

One of the big differences in Australia in recent years is that no matter what happens in the first few weeks of the year, the Grand Slam tournament no longer produces surprise champions and/or finalists in quite the same abundance it once did (remember 2002, when Thomas Johansson won it, or the finalist of 2001, Arnaud Clement?).

You can put that down to the emergence of the ATP's Big Four if you like, but only because Djokovic, Roger Federer, Murray and Rafael Nadal have come to play with the right attitude and in the optimal condition.

Those four men have occupied both slots in the final for the last five years, the only exception being 2008, when Jo-Wilfried Tsonga was the victim in Djokovic's first successful Grand Slam title match. Curiously, the WTA has a great, even record when it comes to coughing up worthy champions Down Under; the last surprise champion was Barbara Jordan in 1979.

So don't be surprised if one or more of your favorites stumbles on his or her way to Melbourne this week, or next. It's not the end of the world, just the beginning of the long, long tennis year that none of the top players wants to embark upon until it's absolutely necessary -- which this year is Jan. 14, the first day of the Australian Open.