Best of Five: Stars shine in season openers
Downton Abbey is all well and good. But another dramatic/melodramatic highbrow/lowbrow serial -- seeped in tradition, filled with subplots, awash in compelling characters -- has returned. Yes, professional tennis is in full force. In fact, as you read this, we are less than a week away from the first major of the year. Here's what we learned after the first set of events:
• Serena Williams still reigns. We once wrote that she is Springsteen; everyone else on the WTA Tour is the E Street Band. Now, it's even more extreme. She is Bruce Hornsby, everyone else is the Range. She is Gladys Knight to their Pips. Or, maybe yet, Chrissie Hynde to their Pretenders. Last week she won the Brisbane International, cruising as usual. After beating Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in the final 6-2, 6-1, the defeated player remarked, "I always feel like I don't know how to play tennis when I play against you." Williams has lost one match since last May. She heads to Melbourne -- an event she has won five times -- having taken 35 of her last 36 matches. Who wants the field?
• Andy Murray started the season strong, winning the Brisbane men's event. There were a few rough patches -- he dropped a set to a qualifier -- but fought through. Which, of course, is what the great ones do. In the final, he was superior to Grigor Dimitrov when it mattered, winning 7-6, 6-4. Spoiler alert: Novak Djokovic is going to be my pick to win the 2013 Australian; but Murray is a close second.
• A year ago, Caroline Wozniacki was the top-ranked woman in the world. After a dismal 2012, she is struggling to remain in the top 10. She got off to a rough start last week. So did Sam Stosur, who often struggles in Australia. All eyes on them in Melbourne.
• We love upsets and fresh faces; but note that there were six events held last week, and all six were won by top guns. (Williams, Murray, Janko Tipsarevic, Aga Radwanska, Li Na and Richard Gasquet.) Still -- using an admittedly small sample size -- here are five upstart players to watch in 2013:
1. Pavlyuchenkova, a player with top-shelf talent who endured a miserable 2012.
2. Sloane Stephens hung with Serena in the rallies, may or may not have taken issue with her opponent's exhortations and just beat Laura Robson on Sunday.
3. Grigor Dimitrov was cursed with the nickname "Baby Fed." At age 21, maybe he's now ready to play up to his native talent level. (He already has the tabloid cred.) Zinging his one-handed backhands, he reached his first ATP final.
4. Madison Keys qualified for the Australian Open in the USTA playoff last year. She qualified for this week's Sydney main draw. Prognostication is, of course, a sucker's game. But optimism here is understandable.
5. Mona Barthel, we haven't given up on you.
• At some point "trend" hardens into "reality." And that's where we are with injuries. So long as no decision-maker seems particularly concerned with player safety, expect a "disabled list" to accompany match results. Among the fallen last week: John Isner pulled out of the Hopman Cup with a knee injury. Maria Sharapova pulled out of Brisbane with a collarbone injury. Victoria Azarenka had to withdraw from her much anticipated match against Serena Williams on account of a -- wait for it -- pedicure injury. So it goes ...
* Paging the ITF, your leadership is kindly requested.