Australian Open tennis preview: Welcome back after winter nap

  • Article by: DAVID WHEATON , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 12, 2013 - 5:23 PM

Professional tennis will pick up right where it left off after the last major championship of 2012.

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Nothing seems beyond Serena Williams’ reach right now, including a sweep of the four women’s majors in 2013.

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Perhaps it's all the hullabaloo of the holidays. Maybe it's Vikings fever (or this year, the real fever). Or it could be that winter here short-circuits the concept of summer there.

Whatever it is, the Australian Open has a way of sneaking up each January, leaving us to wonder: Is it already time for the first Grand Slam tournament of the year?

Quite possibly the main reason this major in Melbourne seems to pop up out of nowhere is that tennis hasn't been on the brain or in the headlines for a very long time. It was way back in early September at the U.S. Open when the sport was last on the front pages and the frontal lobe. Most fans, except for diehards, lose track of the tour for the remainder of the year as it chugs on into November through such faraway stops as Shanghai, St. Petersburg and Stockholm.

Don't be dismayed at being out of touch, though, as the two biggest stories of last year will figure most prominently at the beginning of this year, too.

The first is Serena Williams, who completely and utterly dominated the women's tour over the second half of 2012. Since her shocking exit in the first round of the French Open last May, Williams has won all but one match, winning titles at -- get ready -- Wimbledon, the Olympics, the U.S. Open and the season-ending WTA Championships. Did I mention that she has dominated?

Chalk it up to the French coach (and now possible boyfriend) that she took on after Paris or the realization that she is four major singles titles away from surpassing the 18 of Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova and seven from catching Steffi Graf's record of 22. Currently No. 3 in the world, Williams is on her way to becoming the oldest woman, at age 31, to achieve the No. 1 ranking. With good health and dedication this year, she has, dare I say, a promising chance at winning a calendar-year Grand Slam.

I guess you can surmise who my pick is to win the ladies title in Melbourne.

Vying for the other big story of last year was all-time great Roger Federer recapturing Wimbledon and the No. 1 ranking (for a time) and Rafael Nadal disappearing from the stage altogether. Eleven-time major champion Nadal hasn't played since losing early at Wimbledon last year and will miss the Australian Open with ongoing illness and injury.

Even bigger than these headlines, though, was the long-awaited breakthrough of Scot Andy Murray into the most elite club in the sport, that of Grand Slam champion. Three players -- Federer, Nadal and Novak Djokovic -- had owned every major title except one going all the way back to 2005, and it looked for all the world after Federer's thumping of Murray in the Wimbledon final last July that Murray was forever destined to be a groomsman but never the groom.

That all changed a few weeks later when Murray, on the same court against the same opponent in front of his own cheering nation, struck gold in the Olympic Games and then rode the wave all the way to his first Grand Slam title at the U.S. Open. You can chalk this one up to a new coach, as well. Murray's hiring of Ivan Lendl last year injected some of the Czech Hall of Famer's notorious implacable imperturbability into Murray's previously perturbable veins.

With Nadal out and Federer off his zenith, Murray and Djokovic look to be on a collision course for a long and grinding battle in the hot air and hard courts of Rod Laver Arena. Djokovic, as two-time defending champion and coming off a title at the year-end ATP World Finals, has the slight edge.

And so while it may have been a few months since you last tuned in, not to worry -- the two big stories of last year are about to continue Down Under ... along with some new ones that we will soon discover.

Minnesota's David Wheaton reached the quarterfinals in singles and the finals of doubles at the Australian Open in 1990. He is now a radio host and author. Find out more at davidwheaton.com.

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