The start of a new tennis season has a back-to-school feeling about it, with much exchanging of news and gossip as the players gather again in Australia after the offseason break. What developments are causing chatter on the sidelines? Plenty.
News of a big inter-sport engagement seemed to be in the offing when Caroline Wozniacki arrived Down Under sporting a ring on her left hand, suggesting a possible marriage proposal from boyfriend and two-time golf major champion Rory McIlroy. But both sides quickly quashed the speculation. "It was a Christmas present and it fit on this finger," Wozniacki said in a mundane explanation.
But it turned out there was one crossover pairing during the break: The NHL's Washington Capitals' captain Alex Ovechkin announced that he and Maria Kirilenko are engaged, just over a year after it became known they were dating. They met in the summer of 2011 at the wedding of another tennis-hockey couple -- Elena Dementieva and former Buffalo Sabres player Maxim Afinogenov.
Not all relationships are as official. It was shortly after her first-round French Open loss that Serena Williams went to work with academy owner Patrick Mouratoglou, but if the WTA website is any indication, she's still not officially calling him her coach. It was shortly after her U.S. Open victory that photos surfaced of the two of them window-shopping with their arms wrapped around each other, but so far neither has spoken publicly about it. But there appeared to be additional confirmation of a romantic link between the two when yet more photos were published showing them together on a boat in Mauritius (where Mouratoglou's academy was holding a preseason camp).
Even less clear is what's up between Victoria Azarenka and singer RedFoo. The two were introduced at the U.S. Open, Azarenka showed off her shuffle and the two even held a joint press conference of sorts (she was supposed to be there; he wasn't). Then, he sat in her box during matches and talked about doing shots after her loss in the final. Then they were both in Vegas. Then he was at the WTA year-end championships. Then, they were photographed together in Thailand during her visit to play an exhibition. Too much to be a coincidence? Or maybe it's just a really bad WTA promotional campaign.
On a strictly professional front, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga has ended his coach-less period and is working with Roger Rasheed, previously with Tsonga's compatriot, Gael Monfils, and Leyton Hewitt. Speaking of Monfils, his mental state was the subject of much speculation last month when he was reported to have split with his coach and physio and cut off communication. Some thought he was wallowing in a knee injury that kept him sidelined for a long stretch of the 2012 season, and there was concern he might not return at the beginning of this year. But the acrobatic Frenchman showed up as scheduled in Doha, sounding fine and even talking about trying to make a return to the top 10.
However, getting called for a time violation while toweling off during his second-round match did upset him, and a rather satiric exchange with the umpire ensued. Monfils was the victim of a new ATP crackdown on the time being taken between points -- and far from being the only one. The rule calls first for a warning to be given for going over 25 seconds between points, and then the loss of a first serve (if serving) or a point (if returning) each time thereafter.
Players had been warned of the measure, but it was apparently not taken very seriously -- not surprisingly, since the old rule was rarely enforced -- and dozens and dozens received warnings or penalties during the opening week of the season. Feliciano Lopez and Marcos Baghdatis were among them, as was Ruben Ramirez-Higaldo, who complained that he was sniffling and didn't have time to blow his nose between points. David Ferrer criticized the rule on Twitter, but Murray came out in support despite getting a warning himself. The Scot did say, however, that he felt the maximum should be increased to more than 25 seconds.
The overall effect on the pace of play is hard to judge at this point, but it's been a big bonus for those longing for more mid-match arguments and controversy. Don't get too used to it, though -- the Grand Slams use a different rule (20 seconds, but rarely enforced), so minus any spillover effect, it's going to be back to the old way during the Australian Open.
One rule change that should be more popular is allowing players to wear nonclothing sponsor patches on the front of their shirts instead of just on the sleeves. It gives the players bigger endorsement opportunities, and there are already a few new colorful logos visible on various outfits.
A new year usually means new clothing and gear -- and for some, new brands.
Milos Raonic is now with New Balance and Monfils with Asics, while Tomas Berdych is no longer wearing Nike. He has no replacement yet. As for those who negotiate these deals, Nadal is reported to have left IMG, which also lost Federer last year. The consolation for the agency is that it signed Novak Djokovic. He was earlier with CAA, which now has Raonic.
This jumping around is nothing compared to the switches among the top doubles teams. Where there used to be Daniel Nestor-Nenad Zimonjic, Mahesh Bhupathi-Rohann Bopanna, Jonathan Marray and Frederik Neilsen, there's now Nestor-Bhupathi, Zimonjic-Lindstedt, Bopanna-Rajeev Ram -- and so forth. On the women's side, Lisa Raymond-Liezel Huber and Nadia Petrova-Maria Kirilenko are now Petrova-Srebotnik and Kirilenko-Raymond.
Less eyeball-straining doubles news involves the return of Cara Black, a five-time doubles Grand Slam champ who is back after the birth of her son last year. She's still got it. In her first WTA event since coming back, Black partnered with Anastasia Rodionova to win the Hobart doubles title.
And if that's not enough, expect more -- a lot more -- to talk about once the Australian Open kicks the season into high gear.