Grand Slam tennis has arrived in 2013. At least it almost has.
The first tennis major of the year begins in earnest at Melbourne Park on Monday morning, with Maria Sharapova opening the show on Rod Laver Arena, and Venus Williams on Hisense Arena, before Sam Stosur, Novak Djokovic, Ana Ivanovic and 120-odd other singles players all leap, bound or amble onto the bright blue Plexicushion to get their first round matches under their belts. Half will triumph and advance, half will trudge home. That's what tennis is all about.
The Australian Open has famously been the most unpredictable of the four jewels in the tennis crown, it's place in the season, on the heels of the off-season, meaning that players can either be fresh as daisies or too short of match form to bring their best tennis. But it is also affectionately dubbed 'the Happy Slam,' on account of its fortunate weather and the fact that everyone is considerably less tired and grumpy than they are prone to be at other junctures in the season. Just ask Jamie Baker (pictured above), who won one of the matches of his life against Donald Young to qualify for the main draw, four years after he first made it through qualifying. Baker, who has battled through injury, illness, and, as he revealed on Saturday, depression, spent the off-season training with Andy Murray, and is rewarded with a first round match against Lukas Rosol. Underdog meet underdog.
Back at the potential-champions end of the scale, there are several records of note should either of the two favourites in the men's draw be the ones left holding the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup in two Sundays' time. If world No.1 Novak Djokovic successfully defends his title, he will be the first man in Australian Open history to win three titles in a row. If Andy Murray picks up where he left off at Flushing Meadows, he will be the first man in the Open era ever to win his second Grand Slam singles title immediately after claiming his first.
If Roger Federer, who is competing in his 53rd Grand Slam tournament, chasing Wayne Ferreira's record of 56, wins a fifth Australian Open title, he will climb to 18 Grand Slam singles titles, further embedding himself into the history books. And, if neither of those three win? The tennis world will be treated to only the third first-time Grand Slam champion, ergo someone not named Federer, Nadal or Djokovic, since 2004. That's almost a record in itself.
Djokovic is the only one of the top trio in action on the opening day at Melbourne Park, taking on world No.58 Paul-Henri Mathieu of France, while Murray and Federer, the pair drawn in the same half, face world No.54 Robin Haase and Benoit Paire in their first encounters.
While David Ferrer and Tomas Berdych, both in Djokovic's half, and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Juan Martin Del Potro, in the Federer half, perenially feature as those who could break the big four's deadlock, Bernard Tomic is the youngster on everyone's mind at the moment. The precocious Australian claimed his maiden singles title in Sydney over the weekend and is yet to lose a singles match in 2013. He faces Leonardo Mayer in the first round, but already has his sights set on facing Federer in the third round, 'if he gets that far,' the Australian commented cheekily.
Another young male to get excited about is the baby-faced David Goffin, who will meet 22nd seed Fernando Verdasco, a former semi-finalist at Melbourne Park. It seems hard to believe, but so rapid has Goffin's rise been, that Monday will mark his Australian Open debut. The pair face off on Hisense Arena. And yet another, Grigor Dimitrov, who reached his maiden ATP final in Brisbane, will play what should be a firecracker against Julien Benneteau on Monday.
From young to old, unsurprisingly, many Australian homes will be tuned into the first of the two night matches on Monday night as Lleyton Hewitt takes on eighth seed and Chennai champion Janko Tipsarevic. Neither of the pair do things easily, so pity poor Ana Ivanovic and Melinda Czink, who will follow them into action.
Over in the women's world, while looking beyond Serena is difficult, counting out defending champion and world No.1 Victoria Azarenka would be foolish. The pair are set on a collision mission in the semi-finals, and one might fancy that Azarenka would swop almost anything for a second win over the American in what would be their 12th career meeting. But they both have to get their first. Azarenka's opening opponent is the tricky Monica Niculescu, whom she has admittedly never lost to, while Serena will take on Edina Gallovits-Hall.
But there are 126 other players in the women's draw. Maria Sharapova, taking on Olga Puchkova in the first round, is said to be determined to add to her Grand Slam haul, while Venus Williams will hope to defy her age and illness by finding some of the form she showed towards the end of 2012. She plays Galina Voskoboeva in the first round.
Young should conquer old as Petra Kvitova faces Francesca Schiavone in the first round, the wily Italian seemingly running out of puff these days, while Caroline Wozniacki will likely have had her head in her heads upon drawing the dangerous, albeit not necessarily match-fit, Sabine Lisicki. Li, the Sydney runner-up, has lost just one match in two tournaments so far in 2013 and takes on Sesil Karatantcheva, while Agnieszka Radwanska, one of the biggest improvers in 2012, will follow her Sydney win with a first round match against Australian Bojana Bobusic.
Sam Stosur, meanwhile, who is handed as much attention and pressure at this time of year as Murray faces at Wimbledon, does not have the easiest of starts against Chang Kai-Chen, who beat her in Osaka last year. Stosur has won just one match at Melbourne Park in six years.
And if you want a young'un to get excited about, for a change from Laura Robson and Heather Watson, try America's Madison Keys. The Sydney quarter-finalist plays Aussie stalwart Casey Dellacqua on Margaret Court Arena.
Get your tennis-watching snacks ready. The Australian Open has arrived.
For all the reports and results from Melbourne Park, visit the Official Australian Open website
20:08It brings me no pleasure but it's time to bring the curtain down for another year. Seemed somehow appropriate to leave the last word to Roger Federer. Thanks a billion for reading. What a fortnight, what a final, fast forward to 2015 please...
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