'Tis the season for early Oscar predictions. But we think those movie critics have a soft job, given that they get advance screenings of potential candidates. Who could have scripted the 2008 Wimbledon men's final or foreseen the scramble in the women's rankings? Nonetheless, we'll plunge ahead, figuratively blindfolded, and offer our nominees for tennis' top 10 story lines of 2009:
Will men's tennis behave like a binary equation?
We suspect not. But the focus at the beginning of this season will be, quite properly, on whether Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer will chase each other in circles or whether one man will distance himself from the field. The Australian Open will hold even more significance than usual, as both Nadal and Federer are coming off fatigue- and injury-marred late seasons and will want to move the needle in Melbourne. Novak Djokovic, with an Aussie title to defend, lurks just 10 rankings points behind No. 2 Federer.
Can sisters Venus Williams and Serena Williams maintain their excellence?
Both won a Grand Slam event in 2008, the third time that has happened in the past four seasons. In fact, the siblings have been shut out in Slams only twice -- in 2004 and 2006 -- since Serena opened the scoring with a U.S. Open title in 1999. She and older sister Venus now stand at a crossroads where one would think age and desire might be factors, yet they seem to be better than ever on big occasions.
What kind of sequel will the Serbian women write?
Jelena Jankovic finished 2008 as the WTA's No. 1 player. Ana Ivanovic also reached the top ranking and won her first Slam. Yet both enter '09 with something to prove. Jankovic's best shot to win her first Slam might be at Roland Garros, where Ivanovic broke through last season: Clay plays well to Jankovic's gymnastic style, and there's no dominant female player on the surface. Ivanovic, hurt at midseason, simply needs to demonstrate durability.
Who has the best shot at becoming a first-time Slam winner?
Jankovic, followed closely by a maturing Dinara Safina. On the men's side, Andy Murray appears ready to put it all together. Streaky Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who quietly racked up great results in late-year indoor hard-court action, is capable of generating the heat needed to win seven straight.
Is Andy Roddick capable of another summit charge?
He has been one of the most consistent performers of the new millennium, but Roddick wants more. His new coach, Larry Stefanki, is frank, earthy, funny and passionate about the game -- all traits that Roddick values and that fuel him. Roddick has paired with just about every conceivable coaching personality, but we're betting this one has the potential to bring out the best in him.
Can Maria Sharapova stay healthy?
One of the strongest players in women's tennis has missed chunks of the past two seasons because of a bum shoulder. Is her movie just on pause, or is it in danger of being interrupted? The game isn't as deep or interesting without her. Come back to Oz -- and bring your little dog, too.
Which young players will generate the biggest buzz?
We envision breakthrough years from two burgeoning stars who are their countries' only representatives in the top 100: 18-year-old Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark and Japan's Kei Nishikori, who just turned 19.
Will ATP politics finally settle down?
With the CEO selection hanging in the balance, the newly renamed World Tour has an interest in eliminating lawsuits and turmoil between players and administrators from its itinerary. We await the plume of white smoke from London.
Can tournaments weather the stormy global economy?
The Slams will be fine, but when events such as Indian Wells have trouble landing a title sponsor, you know things are tight. Will the banking and insurance industries -- among the hardest hit in the worldwide meltdown -- be willing and able to maintain their traditional support of tennis? If not, who or what will replace them? The sports world is regarded as recession-proof by some economists, and being associated with it can be considered a smart move, even in tough times. But with people losing their jobs in droves, standard marketing philosophies are under pressure.
Is Wimbledon about to experience a prolonged drought?
Climate change is inevitable now that Centre Court is equipped with a retractable roof. Look for a run on sunscreen, salt tablets and personal misting devices at the concessions stands.
Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.