So much for Rafael Nadal's return
The first Grand Slam of the year is sure to throw up plenty of dramatic matches, plot twists and moments to remember, but don't expect to see these storylines among them.
1. Nadal's triumphant return
Rafael Nadal was ruled out early on when he announced his withdrawal from the tournament before the new season had even begun. The cause wasn't the knee injury that has kept him out since Wimbledon. The official reason was a stomach virus, which led him to first pull out of an exhibition warm-up in Abu Dhabi and then both Doha and the Australian Open.
He has been seen practicing since and probably would have been physically recovered by the time the Australian Open starts, but it sounds as if he and his team felt it was unrealistic to try to play without any warm-up events -- particularly since Nadal wasn't sounding completely certain about his fitness or the state of his knee.
2. Healthy WTA stars
After a two-month break, the top women should be rested and ready to go, right? It doesn't look that way so far.
Despite the extended offseason, many are heading into the Australian Open with fitness question marks. Serena Williams recently had an operation on her toes. Not to be outdone, Victoria Azarenka pulled out of a match against Williams with a toe injury from -- of all things -- a pedicure.
Maria Sharapova has withdrawn from warm-up tournaments with an inflamed collarbone. Samantha Stosur is coming in off ankle surgery. Petra Kvitova's asthma is flaring up again. Venus Williams appears to be experiencing more back trouble.
At least they're all expected to make it to Melbourne. Andrea Petkovic, who spent a good portion of last year sidelined with injury, hurt her knee and has withdrawn from the Australian Open.
3. Federer under the radar
Others may rise or fall, but Federer's pulling power remains undimmed. He is coming into the Australian Open as a bit of a mystery -- not entering any warm-up events, a lackluster fall season and a reduced playing schedule this year -- so there will probably be even more attention than usual on Australia's most popular athlete as the fortnight kicks off.
"I didn't play a lead-up tournament this year because I thought practice is very important for me coming up in the next year, year and a half," Federer told reporters at a sponsor event last week. "It's a bit of a different preparation for the Australian Open this year, but I'm confident that if I'm fresh, which I feel I am, and physically I'm fine, which I am too, that I will play a good Australian Open."
In terms of attention, it hardly matters. Every wobble evokes questions about decline and retirement, and every stirring performance reinforces his greatness. Either way, there's no going unnoticed.
4. No pressure on Murray
The elusive Slam victory is in the bag, but now there's a "one-Slam wonder" tag. Even though Murray can relax a little after capturing his first major at the U.S. Open, that doesn't mean there's no pressure on him going into the Australian Open. If he starts to fall short of his new standards, the honeymoon with a demanding home audience could be over quickly.
"Now that I've managed to do it, I hope that when I'm in those situations again I'll deal with them better and put less pressure on myself, which obviously will help me play better," Murray said.
5. Djokovic's No. 1 ranking in immediate danger
Djokovic had a great beginning and end to last year and a very consistent middle, which adds up to a substantial lead in the rankings. It looks as if the only threat is Federer winning the title, and that's only if Djokovic doesn't make it deep into the tournament.
6. Azarenka No. 1 ranking not in immediate danger
Azarenka, in contrast, is already on the back foot. If she can't beat Sharapova and Serena's performances at the Australian Open, it looks as if she will fall from the top spot. Azarenka is the defending champion and Sharapova reached the final last year, so Serena, who lost in the quarterfinals, is in the best position to gain ground.
7. Serena the underdog
Serena entered this season winning 31 of 32 matches since losing in the first round of the French Open (after which she started working with French coach Patrick Mouratoglou) and 45 of 47 since losing in Miami in March (after which she switched to hybrid strings). Toe surgery or not, she didn't look like she had lost much steam in a warm-up event in Brisbane coming into the Australian Open. Barring an injury, Serena will be the overwhelming favorite against any player she faces during the two weeks.
8. Venus' bizarre dresses
After leaving watchers scratching their heads with the jarring "Alice in Wonderland" number she wore last year, Venus' self-designed outfits have taken a more classic turn. She was even sporting pearls and an up-do at the Hopman Cup, and her outfit at the Australian Open is supposed to feature a paint-splashed pattern -- with no crisscross holes in sight.
Consensus on the state of Australian tennis
Quick, name Australia's top-ranked male player at present. Those who replied "Marinko Matosevic" have probably heard this question before. With 31-year-old Lleyton Hewitt just beginning on his latest comeback, former U.S. Open champ Samantha Stosur short of match practice after ankle surgery, Bernard Tomic becoming a familiar sight to Gold Coast police, things looked bleak at the start of the Aussie swing.
But couple of bright spots have emerged in the last couple of weeks. Tomic's unexpected win over Djokovic in Hopman Cup was followed up with a good run in Sydney, turning him from black sheep to prodigal son once again, at least for a little while. Hewitt scored a good win at the exhibition event in Kooyong -- which may or may not mean that much, but inspired optimism nevertheless. John Millman's unexpected performances in Brisbane and Sydney produced a new name to talk about. It's hard for tennis-loving Australia to figure out if they should be expectant or worried about the next two weeks -- probably a bit of both.
10. Quiet boardrooms
There will be plenty of interest among insiders about the annual ATP player meeting this week, with numerous hotly contested issues on the table. The prize money debate rumbles on, only temporarily subdued by the 15 percent increase offered at this year's Australian Open. The men are up in arms about the new strict time limit rules at ATP events, as well as a turning down of increased prize money at Indian Wells. The no-let rule at challengers has drawn mixed reactions.
Calendar changes are a constant topic, but there are unusually big items in the works, such as moving the Paris Masters and a shift of the South American events.
The women have been low-key by comparison, but finding a replacement for their title sponsor remains a primary concern.
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