Best of Five: Tsonga's strong start to 2012, Aussie Open dark horses
After winning Doha, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga heads into Melbourne with momentum
Andy Murray's stock is on the rise after winning Brisbane and naming a new coach
Serena Williams' discouraging quotes about tennis are circumstantial
1. Tsonga shines in Doha: What an auspicious 2012 debut for Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. The French star won the Doha event last week, getting past Roger Federer in a walkover and then taking out countryman Gael Monfils in the finals 7-5, 6-3. Monfils broke Tsonga in the first game of the match, but Tsonga kept his cool and battled back.
"I said, 'OK, I'm one break down, but I will continue to play my game. I will make him run a lot,' " Tsonga told reporters after the match. "So I hit a lot of shots to make him run. After that, he was maybe a bit tired. That's why I maybe won today."
In these top-heavy days of men's tennis, it's hard to consider seriously that a player outside the "Big Three" will win a major. But Tsonga -- whose big career breakthrough came at the Australian Open in 2008 when he knocked off Rafael Nadal in the semifinals -- has to be taken seriously. What's more, he earned "good guy points" last week.
When Federer pulled out, the promoters tried to appease the fans by summoning Stefan Edberg for a hit-and-giggle. Tonga would have been well within his right to decline because he had a final the following day. Graciously, he accepted, played a set against the Swedish legend, and everyone went away happy.
2. Speaking of Aussie contenders outside the Big Three... Andy Murray's stock is suddenly experiencing a nice uptick. The same week he officially announced that Ivan Lendl would be his new coach, Murray won the Brisbane event, gritting out midweek wins and then dropping Alex Dolgopolov Jr. (in many respects, the pauper's Murray) 6-1, 6-3 in the final.
Still, the burden of proof rests with Murray. After years of "Murray's major victory is a question of when not if" talk, it's now on him to disprove the doubters. His prospects suddenly look much stronger than just a few weeks ago.
3. Serena's lost love: Lots if inked spilled -- and, in the case of our friend Jeremy Schaap, videos made -- about Serena Williams' declaration that she doesn't, in fact, love tennis, the sport that has made her prodigiously famous and wealthy. I think that ultimately, this was much about nothing. Serena's on-again, off-again relationship with the sport has been a theme since the beginning. (What did we think she was going to say: "My world revolves around this sport I hold so dear and I can't even fathom how I would fill my days if I weren't hitting a fuzzy ball with a stick"?)
She's thousands of miles from home; she's north of 30 years old and still frustrated by her play in 2011; her sister is out of action; then she injures her ankle in her first tournament of the year. Not hard to see why her passion and fervor for tennis might not be surging at the moment. (For the record: Serena was back on the practice court at Melbourne Park on Monday.)
What's more, Keven Davis, a longtime advisor to the family -- an eminence grise type, who played a critical role in the Williams narrative -- died a few days before Serena embarked for Australia. Easy to see how that could be weighing on her, too.
4. Raonic on the rise: While he's more of a dark horse than a contender, keep an eye on Milos Raonic, the ascending young Canadian, who won the Chennai tune-up, outlasting top-seeded Janko Tipsarevic 6-7 (4), 7-6 (4), 7-6 (4) in a serve-dominated final. Hard to believe Raonic had to qualify for the Australian Open main draw last year. Even after missing a significant chunk of 2011 with an injury, he'll be seeded (and feared) when the Melbourne draw comes out.
It wasn't a bad week for Tipsarevic either. Apart from coming within a few points of winning the title, he teamed with Leander Paes to take the doubles.
5. Eyes on Melbourne: In the market for an Australian Open dark horse on the women's side? You could do worse than Zheng Jie, who won the Auckland event when Flavia Pennetta was forced to retire in the third set of the final. (And Zheng embraced her initials and new persona.)
Meanwhile, in Brisbane, Kaia Kanepi of Estonia beat Daniela Hantuchova 6-2, 6-1 for her first Premier-level WTA title and second title overall. After getting pushed to three sets in her opener against a qualifier, Kanepi reeled off four consecutive straight-set victories against top-25 players in Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Andrea Petkovic, Francesca Schiavone and Hantuchova.
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