It's January in Melbourne, and as the international tennis circus rolls into town one can be assured of the seasonal recurrence of at least four questions:
Can Federer do the Slam?
Will Hewitt win his native tourney?
What is Sharapova going to wear?
When is it too hot to play?
This year, however, there is a different emphasis, one that has rendered musings on all-time greatness, boorish yokels, sartorial style, and the weather a tad stale.
The 2008 installment of the Australian Open is the first Grand Slam of the calendar year, and the first since revelations of serious corruption tied to betting agencies and even the Russian mafia.
These are dark days indeed for tennis, which was unfashionably late to the party in the fight against drugs and has been dragged reluctantly into the war against the very integrity of the game.
Organisers of the Australian Open—on the face of it—have moved quickly to rid their tournament of the stench of "tanking," setting up an anti-corruption taskforce that includes Tennis Australia officials, detectives from state police, and betting agencies.
Organisers are threatening anyone found guilty of match-fixing with a maximum penalty of 15 years in jail.
Given that 15 years in jail in Australia is the same sentence handed down to murderers and rapists, it is a most hard line the authorities are taking.
God help any player—particularly Russian, particularly a ranked one—who gets bundled out by a 6-0 final set. The footage will get more scrutiny than the Zapruder film.
You can see investigators now:
“Watch this crosscourt forehand go back and to the left...back and to the left...back and to the left.’’
But if we have learned anything from the scandals that have beset baseball, cycling, and track and field, it's that regardless of how bad things are now, there is usually worse to come.
We eagerly await the Jose Canseco of the tennis world to step forward.
'Til then, it would be downright wowserly not to enjoy a tournament whose quality, atmosphere, and popularity now rivals any in the world.
Federer, the Prada-wearing magician, again enters 2008 with history his most obvious challenger.
With 12 Grand Slam titles, he is just two behind Pete Sampras for the most ever. A Grand Slam in the modern era would not only see him roar past Sampras but—you would think—render redundant the argument as to who's the best of all-time.
The Swiss master is a tad underdone from a light end-of-year schedule and a stomach virus that forced him out of a key warmup tournament. But it’s tough to see where his competition will come from.
Nadal is never in good condition in January; Djokovic beat him in Canada, but surely doesn’t have the smarts or all-court game to beat him twice in a row; and Nalbandian, his greatest nemesis (such as it is), seems to have an allergy to actually winning tournaments.
Maybe Brit Andy Murray could surprise in the tradition of Baghdatis and Gonzales, the flamboyant and eccentric finalists of 2006 and 2007.
The women’s side of the draw is a little harder to pick, with the return of Justine Henin presenting the toughest challenge to defending champion Serena Williams.
The Belgian missed the Open last year as her marriage—and double-barreled surname—disintegrated, but she returned to add the French and US Open titles to her name.
Williams, who was dumped by Henin at the French, Wimbledon, and US last year, returns as the defending champion after last year’s stunning win when—battling back from injury and apparent apathy—she swept through unseeded.
The American, whose weight in 2006 was widely condemned, has shown up in phenomenal condition (although brokenhearted) this year, and is unlikely to be fazed by the Southern Hemisphere summer, regarded in some quarters as a killer without actually ever having killed someone.