Where other individual sports typically wait until the weather heads up stateside to begin their series of major events, professional tennis barely waits until the ball drops on the new year. Just two weeks after Ryan Seacrest told you to flip your calendars, the world's best and brightest tennis players are preparing for the 2014 Australian Open in Melbourne.
But before we see whether Rafael Nadal or Serena Williams can carry over their dominance from 2013, the world's two best players must find out who they are playing. Qualifying tournaments and other events will soon cede their time to the Australian Open draw, the yearly event that splits the field of 128 into supposedly equal parts.
So with the draw coming later this week, let's all avoid headaches and check in with how this whole thing will play out Down Under.
Date: Friday, Jan. 10
Where: Melbourne, Australia
Watch: Australian Open TV
The draw for the Australian Open is mostly straightforward. The Top 32 players in the field receive a seed, with the remaining 96 spots being a series of unseeded or qualifying players. There is an initial qualifiers draw and tournament to determine which players who would not otherwise qualify for the Grand Slam event will get one of the extra spots.
From there, the field is then divided into eight 16-person subsections in the form of a typical 128-man tournament. You know, just your typical Saturday evening beer-pong tournament. Only for tennis. The field is divided such that the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds cannot face until the finals and the No. 1 and No. 4 seeds and No. 2 and No. 3 seeds would meet in the semis.
Beyond that, the system is set up on a randomized draw to ensure something of an even playing field for every player. As is tradition, last year's winners, Novak Djokovic and Victoria Azarenka, will attend the ceremony.
Essentially, each player will go in hoping to strike some form of luck. While it's not like Djokovic will be facing Roger Federer in the opening round, the world's best have to look beyond their first few days and to their opponents in the fourth round and quarterfinals. Last year Djokovic found that out the hard way when the No. 15 seed wound up being Stanislas Wawrinka, a late bloomer finally coming into his own on the hard courts in his late 20s.
Barring any surprise withdrawals, the seeds in both the men's and women's side are set. They are based on the World Tennis Rankings.
|5||Juan Martín del Potro|
Over the past few years, the men's tennis hierarchy has become something of a reliable television dramedy. We have the reliable ensemble cast at the top, each of whom get their standout episodes now and again. Because the cast is so enriched with talent, it doesn't really matter which player stands out in each tournament—just that fans see all of their favorites in action.
That said, we may be entering a phase where two standouts, Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, begin separating themselves even farther from the pack than they already have.
Djokovic is looking to become the first person since Roy Emerson to win four straight events. The 26-year-old Serb's victory last year joined him with Emerson and Jack Crawford as the only three-peat champions in the event, and he's the only player to do so during the Open Era.
Though he never became the indestructible world-beater that some predicted, Djokovic is still the best hard-court player in the world. His precision and smarts on the surface make his game a nightmare for competitors, and Djokovic has shown a particular affinity for Melbourne's surface.
That said, would you like to play Rafael Nadal in a tennis tournament right now? Nadal, whose career was in jeopardy the last time this event was being played, returned to the court with a prime-level dominance that enveloped the 2013 tennis season. He won 10 events, lost only seven matches period and even got over his own hard-court bugaboo at the U.S. Open—defeating Djokovic no less.
And Nadal certainly didn't show any signs of slowing down at Doha, winning the season-opening tournament for the first time ever over the weekend.
The others are still here. David Ferrer continues to be the most underappreciated player of his generation. Andy Murray did not go into an underground lair following his Wimbledon win last year, I promise. He'll have something to say about the result. Then there's Federer, the former star turned recurring character playing out what could be his final arc at the top of the bill.
At this point, though, it'd be a lie to say I think this will be anything but a two-man tournament.
|16||Carla Suárez Navarro|
If this tournament was anywhere but Melbourne, we'd probably be discussing whether the women's side of the bracket had only one player rather than the men's two. Serena Williams' monolithic reign of the WTA last year made Nadal's season almost look laughable by comparison.
Williams won 11 tournaments, two of which were majors. OK, so she won one more event than Nadal, what's the big deal? Well, do we start with the 78-4 overall record or the fact that she turned 32 in September. Or maybe it was Williams' own career-threatening battle with injuries, a period in which some questioned whether she would even attempt a return.
Nothing will ever top her Serena Slam run from 2002 to 2003, but considering her advanced age and tenuous relationship with tennis throughout her career, what she did last season was nothing short of impressive. She heads into the Australian Open on a 22-match win streak, one she carried over from 2013 and continued by running through Maria Sharapova and Azarenka at the Brisbane International.
Betting on anyone else to come out with a victory here would seem like a fool's errand until you look at recent history. Azarenka has won consecutive Australian Opens, and the 24-year-old Belarusian will be looking to atone for her finals loss to Williams at Flushing Meadows last year. Azarenka has styled herself as the female Djokovic on the hard surfaces, reaching the finals in each of the last four Slams held on hard courts.
Of course, it's also worth noting that Azarenka has only defeated Williams exactly three times. And never at a major. So it will probably be up to the rest of the field to knock out the world's top-ranked player if Azarenka wants to make it three straight in Melbourne.
But based on the way the way things have gone of late, umm, good luck.
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