One can under­stand why we Min­ne­so­tans, in the fro­zen grip of Jan­u­ar­y, brav­ing sub­zero windchills and icy roads, watch­ing snow blow across lake and field, feel a bit dis­con­nect­ed when we turn on the tel­e­vi­sion to see tanned, sweaty ath­letes scam­per­ing around out­door ten­nis courts dur­ing sun-soaked days of sum­mer in Mel­bourne, Aus­tral­ia.

The year’s first ma­jor may be an out-of-body ex­peri­ence for us, but not for the play­ers who de­scend­ed upon the land of Kangas and Koalas short­ly af­ter Christ­mas. Many fled their own win­ters to acclimate to not just the high­er temps but the high­er bounce of the ball on Plexicushion, the not-so-hard court sur­face of the Aus­tralian Open. Un­like the park­ing lot feel of the U.S. Open courts, Plexicushion pro­vides a bit of, well, you can fig­ure out what it’s sup­posed to of­fer the knees and back.

No­vak Djokovic and Serena Wil­liams are cer­tain­ly fond of the sur­face, each hav­ing won the e­vent six times. Both came into the tour­na­ment last year in a class by them­selves, No. 1s by a mile, el­icit­ing prog­nos­ti­ca­tions of cal­en­dar-year Grand Slams and such.

Serena’s dream was dashed early, los­ing in the fi­nal to Ger­man lefty An­ge­lique Ker­ber, who would go on to win her se­cond ma­jor of the year at the U.S. Open, and by mid-Oc­to­ber, wrest the top rank­ing away from Wil­liams. All was not lost in 2016 for Serena, how­ever: She avenged her loss to Ker­ber in the Wim­ble­don fi­nal, and then days be­fore New Year’s, an­nounced her en­gage­ment to Reddit co-found­er Alexis Oha­ni­an.

Djokovic’s dom­i­nance last­ed long­er. He won in Mel­bourne and then in Paris, achiev­ing a non-cal­en­dar year Grand Slam as he hoist­ed the French Open tro­phy for the first time. But then some­thing strange hap­pened in the third round at Wim­ble­don when A­mer­i­can jour­ney­man Sam Querrey shocked the ten­nis world by tak­ing down a lack­lus­ter Djokovic in four sets. Djokovic would win just one tour­na­ment the rest of the year, e­ven­tu­al­ly re­lin­quish­ing the top spot he had held since mid-2014.

While the Serb was strug­gling, the Scot, Andy Murray, was surg­ing. Mur­ray won Wim­ble­don, then the Olym­pics (a­gain), then the World Tour Finals in November, running up a 26-match win streak to close the year and earn­ing the No. 1 ranking for the first time.

The year that began with a sense of inevitability for Wil­liams and Djokovic closed with signs of vulnerability. Even superstars with 22 and 12 major victories, respec­tively, suffer setbacks.

But superstars also tend to rebound. Williams and Djokovick may enter the Australian Open as No. 2 seeds but their combined dozen titles Down Under make them nothing less than co-favorites with their top-ranked counterparts, espe­cially considering Kerber and Murray have a total of one title between them.

It will be interesting to watch how two other greats on the men’s side — Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal — fare after returning from injuries. The 35-year-old Federer, whose ranking now matches his record 17 Grand Slam titles, reached the semi­finals of Wimbledon and then took the rest of the year off to heal his aching back. Fourteen-time major winner Nadal, who is now 30 years old and ranked ninth, strug­gled with knee and wrist prob­lems most of last year, fi­nal­ly drop­ping off tour in the fall to rest. Both pro­fess health, but do they pos­sess the goods to go all the way in a ma­jor any­more?

It’s in­creas­ing­ly dif­fi­cult to see that path, es­pe­cial­ly with young­er con­tend­ers such as Ca­na­di­an Mi­los Raonic, Jap­a­nese Kei Nishikori and Aus­tri­an Dom­i­nic Thiem all ranked high­er and hungry for a first Slam. And Swiss veteran Stan Wawrinka — own­er of three ma­jors, most recently the 2016 U.S. Open — has the shot-making and be­lief to make a title run any giv­en week.

The year’s first ma­jor typ­i­cal­ly holds plen­ty of sur­pris­es. Some play­ers ar­rive Down Under fit and fresh, pre­pared for long match­es in the heat. Oth­ers stum­ble in, still fa­tigued from a short offseason. New faces e­merge de­ter­mined to make their mark. All com­bine and col­lide at Mel­bourne Park, making the Aus­tral­i­an Open a favorite for play­er and fan.

So put on those slip­pers, cozy up with that blan­ket, and soak in some sum­mer ten­nis. We may have months to go be­fore we’ll ex­peri­ence any­thing re­sem­bling shirtsleeves and suntans, but hey, we love our four seas­ons, right?


Minnesota’s David Wheaton reached the quarterfinals of singles and the final of doubles at the Australian Open in 1990. He is now a radio host and the author of two books. Find out more at