While Americans were freezing their Tebows off watching playoff football, the first major tennis tournament of the year kicked off in Australia, with temperatures in Melbourne hitting 92 on day one. Dylan Stableford, Deadspin's tennis editor, has a preview of the action Down Under.
A few weeks ago, the biggest question coming into the 2012 Australian Open—and the tennis season in general—figured to be simple: Can Novak Djokovic—who began 2011 by winning 43 straight matches en route to three Grand Slam titles, 10 overall, and the greatest year in the history of tennis—do it again? (Related question: Will any gluten be consumed on the ATP tour this year?)
That is, until Serena Williams managed to spark a hip-hop beef between Drake and Common, a firestorm of criticism over comments ("I don't love tennis"), and a minor fury over the new John Basedow-like abs she unveiled in Australia. (Yes, Serena has a six-pack. And this from a woman who said last week: "I've actually never liked sports, and I never understood how I became an athlete. I don't like working out. I don't like anything that has to do with working physically.")
Then Rafael Nadal, in a rare display of an actual, unguarded opinion, dissed Roger Federer in a pre-tournament interview. "For him it's good to say nothing," Nadal said when asked why his Swiss rival is not joining fellow players in lobbying the ATP to alleviate a grueling tour schedule. "Everything positive. 'It's all well and good for me, I look like a gentleman,' and the rest can burn themselves." Federer, sadly, took the high road, saying "things are fine" between the pair and that "we can't always agree on everything." (Roger, are you familiar at all with Barca-Real Madrid? Bitterness between rivals is good in sports.)
Toss in the fact that the slew of injured players heading into the tournament (Williams's ankle, Federer's back, Nadal's shoulder, Kim Clijsters's hip) reads like the Pittsburgh Steelers' inactive list, and the Australian Open just got that much more interesting. On the men's side, there are plenty of dangerous dark horses looking to throttle the 26-of-27 string of Grand Slams ending with a Federer, Nadal, or Djokovic holding the trophy: Janko Tipsarevic and his Dostoevsky tattoos; Milos Raonic and his big Canadian serve; Alexandr Dolgopolov (who prefers it Dolgo-style); and even Bernard Tomic, who came back beat to Fernando Verdasco and his hideous Adidas outfit in five sets in the first round.
Besides, Djokovic sounded a bit less hungry than he was a year ago, telling the Herald Sun, "I think I already have quite a rich career and anything I make from now on would be a bonus, really."
As for the women, the laser-focused attention on Williams should benefit those like Caroline Wozniacki (who spent part of the offseason riding horses on a Thai beach with Rory McIlroy), Maria Sharapova (who, sadly, did not), and Li Na, who made the finals here last year before being clujbbed by Clijsters.
And unlike with the other Grand Slams, we are not inundated with perennial stories like home-country hopefuls—there are no Andy Murrays or Jo-Wilfried Tsongas or Andy Roddicks or Mardy Fishes to worry about at the Australian Open. (Well, there's one: Sam Stosur, who upset Williams at the 2011 U.S. Open to become an Evonne Goolagong for the iPhone generation.) In terms of fans, it's probably the most international of any of the slams, which is partially why Melbourne Park turned into a Bosnian-Serbian war zone a few years ago. At the U.S. Open, the fights usually have less to do with jingoism and more to do with drunk dudes arguing with old ladies.
Here's to them all.