February tennis is a smorgasbord of Davis Cup, mid-level tournaments and calculated appearances from stars like Roger Federer. But there are always shifting scenes in the world of tennis that set up bigger tournaments ahead.
We take a shot at the Davis Cup and look in at Sochi's hometown girl, Maria Sharapova.
There are injury withdrawals from some of tennis' biggest stars, who watched this week's titles at Croatia, France and Chile.
After an offseason of hibernation, we are bringing back the "Winners and Losers" column. As always, there will be the ignominious Burnt Bagel and coveted Golden Breadstick awards. This is where we comment on the unusual, disappointing and triumphant happenings in professional tennis.
The week began with Davis Cup aftermath. Powerful Serbia and Spain were eliminated, and suddenly Switzerland was looking like the favorite behind Australian Open champion Stanislas Wawrinka and his greybeard sidekick, Roger Federer. Huh?
It would be interesting to truly know the reasons for Federer's 11th-hour commitment, something that Peter Bodo questioned from all sides, but it's not like he is a complete stranger to the Davis Cup. He played in 36 matches from 1999-2004 and still found time for 23 matches since 2005.
Does Federer see this as an easier opportunity now worth the investment? Maybe coach and Davis Cup legend Stefan Edberg flashed a few of his rings and spoke about things like camaraderie and fresh challenges.
Regardless, Federer and Wawrinka continue to build the Swiss tennis legacy.
Tennis fans who buzz around Federer's every movements will now find the Davis Cup to be suddenly intriguing. There will undoubtedly be some fans insisting that this competition is now as relevant as it was three decades ago.
Switzerland and the Davis Cup are the real winners. They are lucky to ride more Federer attention to prop up their dying event. More on this with the next slide.
Tradition pulls a lot of weight in sports, and why not? Fans love to compare legends, numbers and stories that transcend eras. It gives context to modern feats and conversations.
But tradition should not enslave progress. For instance, the early-Open Era featured three of four Grand Slam venues (not the French Open) on grass. While many lament the near-extinction of grass courts, switching to hard courts has made utilitarian and economical sense. Tennis participants from around the world do not need to fork out hefty fees for exclusive country club participation.
But the Davis Cup is no longer a meaningful competition between the top players in the top countries, and it hasn't been this way on a consistent basis for about 30 years.
In the 1990s, Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and Jim Courier understandably invested themselves in their quests to win Grand Slam titles and hold the No. 1 ranking. They were rivals first, and they often had the uncomfortable dilemma of playing the Davis Cup with only one foot in the water.
Roger Federer fought for Switzerland as a one-man gang in his early years, but he had to make more choices on his schedule once he became the No. 1 target in the world. His career priority was to win as many Grand Slam titles as possible, Swiss tennis notwithstanding.
The reality is that this is not a Federer issue. We rarely see teams choose to compete at full strength. Some of this has been due to injuries (See Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal for most current examples), but it's usually a Machiavellian career move.
We were robbed of a possible Novak Djokovic vs. Federer showdown last week. Then again, if Djokovic played, would Federer have joined the fray?
Do watered-down paths to the Davis Cup really still matter? Tennis tradition is important, but the Davis Cup is worse than it once was. It deserves to choke on the Burnt Bagel award.
Enough already on the Davis Cup, I know. But it's worth noting that Andy Murray played on clay at San Diego's Petco Park as Great Britain trumped the United States.
OK, so defeating Donald Young and Sam Querrey on the red stuff is not exactly the same as dishing out losses to Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic at Roland Garros. At least Murray is playing on clay and feeling good about it, he said via ESPN.com:
When we got here the court was pretty slippery and tough to move on. I would say for myself, one of my strengths is my movement on the court.
Murray will need this kind of confidence and movement come April. In 2012-13, he battled through injuries, missed time and had disappointing results on clay. He still seeks his first clay-court title.
It's not yet time to proclaim the Wimbledon champion as the new king of clay, but it's great to see him sliding into his shots and comments.
Rafael Nadal had to pull out of Argentina's Copa Claro tournament because of a stomach virus and the back injury that hampered him in the Australian Open final, according to his statement in The Buenos Aires Herald.
Naturally this is a disappointment for tennis fans in Argentina, but they did get David Ferrer to ditch Rotterdam and rush down to Argentina's clay as a wild card. He is the ultimate points opportunist who smells a title.
Unfortunately, Nadal's injuries are a sore subject that will continue to garner nearly as much attention as his tennis. It's old news when reviewing his career, but tennis fans and media will continue to speculate about the severity of his injuries.
Nadal's legacy will include his troubles with injuries, and there are already differing viewpoints in how his career should be considered. His achievements are interrupted by gaps that some tennis fans say deny him his full acclaim. Supporters believe it is all the more remarkable he can continue to come back and win.
This is an eternal topic, and it will be debated long after his racket collects (red) dust in Mallorca.
Maria Sharapova fans rejoice! She is not playing tennis, but she is as visible as ever, stuffing 10-12 coats into her travel bag and filling her time with new activities.
Sochi, Russia is currently hosting the Winter Olympics, and it is also Sharapova's childhood home. So it makes sense that she pose at her hometown, visit the Olympic village, attend figure skating and play tour guide of sorts. She even hooked up as an Olympic correspondent for NBC and appeared on The Today Show.
And who got to help light and carry the Olympic torch? Hopefully it didn't exacerbate her aching shoulder.
There's plenty of time to train for tennis anyway, but somehow she manages her celebrity while being a top five player.
On with Alpine skiing!
Li Na should have no trouble making up 11 points and trading places with Azarenka for the No. 2 ranking.
Tennis stars play with nagging injuries, but stars like Azarenka play deeper into tournaments than most players. They must constantly balance their schedule with recovery; all the while trying to keep their ranking or move into better position for big titles.
Cilic's fourth Croatian title in six years was clinched with a convincing win over top seed Tommy Haas 6-3, 6-4 in 80 minutes.
It's a good sign for the hard-hitting Cilic as he looks to climb back toward the Top 10 in the ATP rankings. This will take time, and even his victory today merely defends the points from his 2013 title.
To commemorate his championship, we will plug his very active Official Fan Page. Layers of photos and results form an interesting digital collage. There is even a fan who raved about Cilic gifting her his sweat bands. Life as a second-level talent on the ATP has many demands.
Competition at Rotterdam this week will be a stiffer test. Cilic faces possible second and third-round challenges in Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Andy Murray. This is now reality as a non-seed. He's going to have to claw his way back with tough early-round matches.
How many pictures will be added to his fan page next week? Stay tuned.
Now it's Stanislas Wawrinka who must figure out how to keep the Grand Slam momentum going while not getting ground down by the tour. He withdrew from ABN AMRO World Tennis Tournament in Rotterdam.
Wawrinka's Australian Open title and Davis Cup participation probably did deserve a rest. He has been a rock-hard competitor and might now be dealing with increased fatigue and uncharted expectations going forward this spring. He will need to pace himself just a bit if he is to be at full strength for tournaments at Indian Wells, Miami and European Masters 1000 events.
It would have been interesting to see Wawrinka compete against a very strong Rotterdam field that now includes late entries Andy Murray and Juan Martin del Potro. Other big names competing will be Tomas Berdych, Richard Gasquet, Tommy Haas and Grigor Dimitrov.
There are a few other big names missing, but we won't mention their names.
It was nice to see Monfils bounce back from the beating he took in Australia, courtesy of Rafael Nadal. Maybe it's time to just enjoy his athleticism and flamboyant tennis, rather than wait for him to be an upper-echelon talent.
At age 27, this just isn't going to happen for him. He does not possess the steady, iron approach of Stanislas Wawrinka, nor does he have a truly great weapon to be a winner. He served well this week, but what about next week when competition heats up at Rotterdam?
Oh yeah, his first-round draw is the top seed, Juan Martin del Potro.
So let's go ahead and give Monfils this week's Golden Breadstick award. He won a well-deserved title and should get props for entertaining tennis. Not a bad career for an athlete who could draw crowds for exhibition tennis.
Let's get this out of the way, because Fabio Fognini probably shouldn't be slighted for adding another clay-court title to his efforts in becoming the next David Ferrer. He won the 2014 Chile Open. Noted.
But let's flash back to one year ago at this tournament. Horacio Zeballos had climbed to the pinnacle of his career by defeating Rafael Nadal for the title. He had the eyes of the world watching his effort as the paparazzi media swarmed around the Spaniard's comeback.
Zeballos stormed up to No. 39 in the ATP rankings by early March 2013 and at least seemed to have the confidence to hang inside the Top 50.
But reality returned as he slipped to No. 67 heading into Chile this past week. He wasn't expected to win the Chilean title again, but he was handled in the second round by No. 85 Daniel Gimeno-Traver. Not exactly the way to defend a title.
Zeballos' 2013 title will have to remain his career highlight, and the memory has already browned enough to throw out the stems and rewash the vase. Zeballos just dropped 45 spots to No. 112 in the world.
He is this week's top loser, giving up the penthouse to take residency in the basement.