The new tennis season is already underway, but it is about to kick into high gear. I hope you're well rested, because we're less than a week away from the first major of the year, the 2014 Australian Open!
After the incredibly brief offseason, it's finally time to see all of our favorite players back on the same stage and competing for the biggest prize in tennis. Unlike last year, all the biggest stars in the men's and women's game are all (relatively) healthy and hungry to start the year with a shiny new addition to their trophy case.
So get ready for the upsets, the marathon matches, the controversies and, most importantly, the unhealthy amounts of sleep deprivation that are sure to accompany two wild weeks Down Under.
Here's a look at what's to come as the tennis tour takes over Melbourne.
Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic Reign Supreme
2013 was, with the exception of Wimbledon, all about Nadal and Djokovic.
Nadal's comeback, complete with French and U.S. Open titles, was the talk of the tennis town and good enough for him to finish the tennis year ranked No. 1. Djokovic, meanwhile, won the Australian Open, made two other Grand Slam finals and ended the year on a 22-match winning streak.
Right now, it's their tour. Everyone else is an underdog.
Andy Murray Is Back
Murray wasn't a factor after winning Wimbledon last year, failing to make an impact during the U.S. Open Series, and then having "minor" back surgery after the US Open and missing the rest of the year. But, thankfully, he's back in action in Australia.
Legends are Taking Over as Coaches
Murray made waves when he hired Ivan Lendl back in 2012 to be his coach, but two Grand Slams later it looks like he started a trend. During the offseason, Djokovic joined forces with Boris Becker and Roger Federer teamed up with Stefan Edberg. There's certainly no lack of star power in those pairings.
Can Anyone Beat Djokovic Down Under?
Djokovic absolutely loves the blue courts of Melbourne. He's won the title there four times, including the last three years in a row. Until he's officially dethroned, he's the King of Oz.
What Kind of Form Is Murray In?
We've established that he's back, but how will Murray play? The Brit lost early in his only warm-up tournament of 2014 in Brisbane, so he's very low on match play. The business end of the tournament would be more fun if Murray could make it there.
Will Federer Turn Back the Clock?
With Stefan Edberg by his side, Federer has come out with a spring in his step in 2014, ready to try new things—including playing the warm-up event in Brisbane, where he lost to the never-aging Lleyton Hewitt in the final. Can Federer recapture past glories in Oz, or will he crash out early yet again in a slam?
Can Anyone Else Make a Breakthrough?
The men's game has been stagnant at the top for the past five years (or more), and it's beyond time for members of the next generation, like Grigor Dimitrov, Milos Raonic and Jerzy Janowicz, to become legitimate contenders. With Federer aging and Murray questionable, there's room for some more stars at the top. But will they show up?
It was a tennis lifetime ago when, back in 2008, Tsonga danced into the hearts of tennis fans everywhere as he made his run to the Australian Open final. Tsonga is ranked No. 10 now and coming off of a diamond-worthy performance at Hopman Cup. He seems poised to make some noise in Melbourne once again.
Wawrinka had a career year in 2013, making the semifinals of the US Open and the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals and finishing the year ranked No. 8. He started this year by winning his fifth title in Chennai, and he seems determined to out-do his epic performance in the fourth round against Djokovic here last year.
There's never a dull moment with Gael Monfils, as he proved once again in the Qatar Open this year, where he lost to Nadal in the final. The electric Frenchman is always entertaining and has the talent to push anyone to the brink.
Djokovic is riding a 22-match winning streak on the ATP and has won the Australian Open four out of the last six years. Bet against him Down Under at your own peril.
Nadal is sitting pretty at No. 1 right now thanks to his impressive run on outdoor hard courts in 2013. He's won in Australia before, and although he missed last year due to a knee injury, he made the final the last time he played in 2012. He certainly has what it takes to end the fortnight on a winning streak.
Juan Martin del Potro
We've already discussed Murray's questionable form and Federer's problems with aging. While both of those guys have what it takes to win the title, I think that 2009 US Open Champion Del Potro, currently No. 5, has a better shot at taking the title if Djokovic or Nadal tumble. It's time for the Argentinian to get back to the podium where he belongs.
There Won't Be Another Nadal-Djokovic Final
While it's hard to bet against either of them, I just have a hard time seeing yet another No. 1 vs. No. 2 final taking place in Australia. There will be a significant upset or two along the way.
It Will Be Another Bad Tournament for Americans
John Isner, the top American, had to pull out of Hopman Cup last week with an ankle injury. Sam Querrey, our No. 2, is unseeded at this major and still trying to regain his form after a rough 2013. Nobody else is on the radar. It's going to be another tough tournament for the males in stars and stripes.
Andy Murray Will Lose in the First Week
I look forward to the day when Nadal, Murray and Djokovic all go deep at a tournament again, but I fear it won't be this month. Murray's loss to Florian Mayer in Brisbane raised a lot of red flags, and there just isn't time for him to find his top form before the major gets underway.
It's Still Serena's World
It's been a busy offseason, but things haven't changed that much: Serena Williams is still the queen of the WTA.
Coming off the most complete season of her career at the age of 32, Serena showed no signs of slowing down in 2014. She took out rivals Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka to win the title during the first week of the season in Brisbane.
Coaching Carousel Continues
The women's coaching changes haven't been as headline-grabbing as the men's have been, but they're still significant. Most notably, Maria Sharapova has teamed up with Adidas mastermind Sven Groeneveld, Sloane Stephens has hired former Federer coach Paul Annacone and Caroline Wozniacki has brought Sharapova's former coach Thomas Hogstedt to her team. It should be fun to see how it all plays out.
Maria Sharapova Has Returned
After making the French Open final last year, Sharapova only played three matches for the rest of the year, pulling the plug on her season after a second-round loss to Sloane Stephens at the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati due to shoulder bursitis.
But she has a new coach, Sven Groeneveld, by her side, and she looked to be in decent form making the semifinals of Brisbane in her first tournament back. The tour is more fun with her around.
Can Serena Stay Healthy?
2012 and 2013 were both very successful years for Serena Williams, but both of them saw her come up short at the Australian Open, a tournament she's won five times.
In 2012, Serena injured her ankle during the warm-up event in Brisbane and eventually lost to Ekaterina Makarova in the fourth round of the Australian Open. In 2013, she twisted her ankle in the first round and eventually lost to Sloane Stephens in the quarterfinals.
Watch out for her footing this year—turns out, having two healthy legs is important even for the best.
Can Sloane Stephens Repeat 2013?
Last year, Stephens broke through here in Australia, making her first major semifinal and earning the attention that comes with knocking off Serena. This year is different, though, as all eyes will be on her to see what her encore will be. How will she handle the expectations?
Can Azarenka Win Back the Crowds and Continue Dominating?
Unfortunately, Azarenka's medical timeout against Stephens in their semifinal last year ended up overshadowing her second straight Australian Open title. The No. 2 will be looking to win over the Australian crowds the best way she knows how: winning.
Kvitova has been a bit of a wild card (to put it mildly) since her breathtaking performance winning Wimbledon in 2011, but there are reasons to believe that the erratic Czech is ready to be a contender again. Her very public relationship with ATP player Radek Stepanek seems to have focused her, and she looked fitter than ever at Hopman Cup this year. A healthy and focused Kvitova is certainly someone to watch.
Despite being the No. 4 seed, Radwanska is eternally under the radar. While she might not have the power to take out Serena or Azarenka, she is a steady and legitimate threat if either of them falters.
As Sloane Stephens had the flashy results last year, 18-year-old Madison Keys slowly but surely climbed up the rankings all the way to her current spot at No. 36. With a killer serve, a go-for-broke forehand and a recent win over No. 11 Simona Halep, Keys is a dangerous floater in the draw. She could do some serious damage.
The 17-time Grand Slam Champion is chasing history, and, until proven otherwise, this is Serena's tournament to win.
Azarenka has won the Australian Open two years in a row and is serious about going for a three-peat. She hasn't lost to anyone not named Serena at a hard-court Slam since the 2011 Australian Open. She will be a tough out for anyone in Melbourne.
The 2008 Australian Open Champion can never be counted out—unless it's in a match against Serena, to whom she's lost the last 14 in a row. But Sharapova will be hungry after spending the last five months on the sideline, and her competitiveness should not be underestimated.
Li Na might be the defending Champion if it wasn't for her two falls in last year's final against Azarenka. The 2011 French Open Champion is a two-time finalist at the Australian Open. She is a danger to everyone in the draw—including herself.
Sloane Stephens Will Not Make the Second Week
Stephens is dealing with a wrist injury that made her retire from Hopman Cup to start the season, and she is unlikely to capture the magic—or benefit from the generous draw—that helped her make the semifinals last year. Stephens will have good moments in 2014, just not quite yet.
There Will Be Two Americans in the Quarterfinals
While the American men will likely continue struggling, I expect bright things from the American women in Melbourne. Despite my prediction of Stephens losing early, I think that either Venus Williams, Jamie Hampton, Madison Keys, Varvara Lepchenko, Bethanie Mattek-Sands or Allison Riske will join Serena in the quarterfinals.
We Will Get the No. 1 vs. No. 2 Final
Bold, I know, but I think that Azarenka and Serena will continue to prove that they are a step above the rest.
Serena Williams Will Win
I think the only person who can stop Azarenka in Melbourne is Serena. And I think that she will.