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 DavidWheaton.com.