Tuesday January 11th, 2011

The beauty of tennis' new year, aside from the anticipation surrounding the Australian Open, is the chance to isolate certain truths out of nothing. The past week saw a flurry of insignificant events, but there was much to be learned about some of the sport's key players:

Roger Federer: This guy is priceless after a really impressive win. He's completely frank about his brilliance, and somehow, it never comes off as arrogance. He will marvel at how well he played, basically echoing the thoughts of every spectator in the stands. The latest gem came after he roundly dispatched Nikolay Davydenko the Qatar final: "I was flawless today."

Vera Zvonareva: She's making herself impossible to ignore. Until last year, she was a horribly ill-tempered woman who would systematically destroy any chance of winning a big match with godawful bursts of temper, most of them requiring little or no provocation. Suddenly, she reached the finals of Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. And now she owns a 6-1, 6-0 rout of No. 1-ranked Caroline Woznicaki in Hong Kong. All right, so it was an exhibition tournament. That's a bad sign for Wozniacki and a marvelous result for the 26-year-old Zvonareva, who may finally be ready to attack the tour as a mature, very capable woman.

Melanie Oudin: Forget the big expectations, everyone. She savors the fight, but she doesn't have the game to compete at the highest level - and she never will. Up a set and a break on Maria Kirilenko in Hong Kong, Oudin let it cascade into a brutal 3-6, 7-6, 6-0 loss, a veritable capsulization of her career. She's only 19? Lame excuse. Maybe you can say that about Everest climbers, or computer analysts. Not female tennis players.

Andy Roddick: You can't put too much stock in his 6-3, 7-5 loss to Robin Soderling in the Brisbane final. On a wild and stormy day in the Queensland state, tormented by extreme flooding for weeks, Roddick cashed in his motivation as soon as rain started blowing in through a gap between the stands and the roof. Saying later he was "scared to move," Roddick wasn't about to take a pratfall before the year's first major in Melbourne.

Nicolas Mahut: Now the casual fan knows two things about him: He engaged John Isner in that incomprehensible Wimbledon marathon (70-68 in the fifth), and he fancies a bit of whimsy. As he prepared for mixed doubles at the Hopman court, he showed up wearing the identical sleeveless, low-cut tennis dress as his partner, Kristina Mladenovic. Nobody laughed harder than John Isner's partner, Bethanie Mattek-Sands, known for her outrageous (absurd, actually) fashion statements on the women's tour.

Justine Henin: Life simply cannot be easy for the Belgian star. She's always tormented by something -- private life, shifts in strategy, shaken confidence, injuries -- and after sitting out the second half of 2010 with an elbow injury, she admitted to some lingering pain during the Hopman Cup. "I have to deal with it," she said. "It's OK, I can play, but sometimes my focus is a lot on it."

Too bad Mr. Hopman wasn't around for a comment (Harry Hopman, the legendary Australian coach, died in 1985). Never tolerant of excuses, Hopman often said, "If you're injured, you don't play. If you play, you're not injured."

Venus Williams: Making a long-awaited return from knee problems, she took straight-set losses to Zvonareva and Li Na, neither of whom fears her in the slightest. "I feel good about my game," said Venus, but then again, she always says that. It hardly rings true for an all-time great at the end of the line.

The Fed Cup: Good to know that Henin and Kim Clijsters have committed to play together. It's not so much about next month's match against the U.S. in Antwerp. The Williams sisters' participation (or lack of it) is a tired, dreadful saga, and without them, the American team lacks experience. This is all about Henin and Clijsters going against two-time defending champion Italy, with Francesca Schiavone and Flavia Pennetta. That has dreamy potential.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga: Few could forget his stirring performance at the 2008 Australian Open, where he defeated Rafael Nadal en route to the final. That was the signature moment of Tsonga's career, one that appeared to signal a new day among the elite. Is he ready for a long-awaited encore, after a long series of injuries? Roger Federer thinks so, after playing Tsonga in Qatar. "It's nice to see him back," said Federer. "I think it's exciting, playing him again. He's a very explosive player with good character, good for the game."

Kei Nishikori: The 21-year-old Japanese player is Brad Gilbert's latest project, Gilbert having signed on for some four months of work in between his ESPN assignments. Nishikori roomed with Gilbert's son, Zack, at the Bollettieri Academy, so this coach-player relationship has a bit of history. Nishikori is just 5-10, 150, but Gilbert really likes his groundstrokes, movement and mental toughness. A player worth watching.

The Australian women: Not the greatest buildup to such an important event. Samantha Stosur, by far the country's top player, took a discouraging loss to countrywoman Jamila Groth in the second round at Brisbane (the first time they'd played each other in two years). Groth didn't do herself any favors by ripping the Australian tennis writers, claiming they "kick you when you're down," and she had a bizarre confrontation with her husband, Sam, during her quarterfinal loss to Andrea Petkovic. The two had an angry exchange when Sam came onto the court to offer some coaching advice, and at one point, Jarmila shouted, "Don't talk to me like a ----ing tourist."

The sidelines: How discouraging is this? Amid ongoing criticism that the tour is too physically demanding of the players, the WTA entered the year's first week with Schiavone, Pennetta, Ana Ivanovic, Serena Williams, Daniela Hantuchova, Laura Robson, Jelena Dokic, Elena Veznina and Agnes Szavay on the injured list.

The Serbian men: In the wake of their thrilling and dramatic Davis Cup victory over France, the Serbian players lined up to get their heads shaved. Good grief; nothing wrecks a classy moment quite like wretched slapstick.

And how do the players feel about it now?

"A stupid thing," said Janko Tipsarevic.

Thank you.

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