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Aussie Open tips, Serena's outlook, ATP's biggest forehand, more mail

Welcome back. Happy 2012, everyone ...

I've finally done it! I've booked a ticket to the Australian Open for my husband's 50th birthday. We are beyond excited. I know you do tips for enjoying the U.S. Open. Would you mind doing the same for enjoying Australia? Thanks!--Alison, Miami

• Good for you. Someone else wrote me last week with the same request. First, know this: There's no sugarcoating the flight. It's brutal, even if your budget/miles account doesn't consign you to steerage. Flying to Europe will feel like a shuttle flight after the Miami-Melbourne odyssey. But once you land, you almost can't not have a great time. Everything is manageable and navigable and fun. It's like the Occam's razor event: Everything is as efficient and minimally complicated. As for tips, we'll revisit this in the next few weeks (the Australian Open begins Jan. 16) -- and you guys should feel free to help -- but here are 10 to start:

• Don't rent a car. Melbourne is a terrific walking city and, unlike the other Grand Slam tournaments, you can stroll to the site from a downtown hotel. Or take a free tram. And at least once, take the water taxi.

• Though there's been a creeping corporatization, the Australian Open is still more of a beer event than a champagne event. Stroll the grounds, and you never know what you'll see -- a man on stilts, a woman playing a didgeridoo, Olivia Newton John inadvertently walking into the men's room, as apparently happened several years ago.

• Bring your Amex. As with most tennis events, American Express has a strong on-site presence. As I recall (at least in past years), you could get everything from a smoothie to a massage to the obligatory radio, just by flashing your card.

• The city with the largest Greek population is Athens. Next, allegedly, is Melbourne. When a Greek (or Cypriot) player is on the court, go watch. Same for players from the Balkans, though this has turned ugly in the past.

• If you can finagle your way to the back practice courts, it's a good location for autographs.

• If you want a break, either walk along the river or cross the train tracks and tour the Melbourne Cricket Grounds.

• Bring sunscreen and lots of it, wear a hat and hydrate early and often.

• Bring lunch. Melbourne is a great food town (we've long been partial to Jim's Greek Taverna in Collingwood), but that doesn't extend to the tennis.

• Try the sparkling Shiraz, which, by an order of magnitude, tastes better than it sounds.

• If you attend a match in Margaret Court Arena, feel free to print this and brandish.

If Serena Williams finds a way to win a Grand Slam singles event in 2012, which one would impress you the most and why?--Joe Johnson, Easton, Pa.

• I suppose the obvious answer is the French Open, the lone major she has not won multiple times. But, Williams' protestations to the contrary, her last few appearances at the U.S. Open have been so ugly -- and, I would argue, occasions in which she has shown such a lack of control and susceptibility to pressure -- that it would represent a real triumph of will if she were to win again in New York. Already, you can envision the word "exorcism" going into heavy rotation.

I miss hearing the sound of Cyclops at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Any chance of bringing it back? I understand Hawk-Eye was brought in, but if Cyclops is there, players wouldn't have to potentially waste challenges, and the integrity of the game is better.--Tan Nguyen, Montreal

• Someone out there, make Tan a Cyclops audio file. It will be like whale tones to the tennis fan. Seriously, Cyclops versus Hawk-Eye is like Palm Pilot versus iPhone. If I recall, the Cyclops was only used for serves, not for all lines.

Just thinking ... if Caroline Wozniacki and Sabine Lisicki would play for Poland, that country would have three players in the top 15. A sure Fed Cup winner for many years to come.--Joel Castro, San Juan, Puerto Rico

• Good call. Though we could do this in all sorts of ways. Milos Raonic was born in Montenegro, and Daniel Nestor was born in Belgrade. Two immigration decisions go unmade, and suddenly the current state of Canadian tennis looks a lot different. A funny, fickle thing this business of tennis citizenship.

Simple question: What would you recommend to someone looking to move to a great "tennis town" in the U.S.? How about a ranking of the top 10 "tennis towns" you know about? I've lived in New Jersey for 15 years, and soon it will be time for a change. My criteria is simple: year-round wonderful tennis weather.--Dave, Jersey City, N.J.

• Interesting question, and I'm open to suggestions here. Atlanta has a strong reputation. Charleston, S.C., too. And Knoxville, Tenn. And Winston Salem, N.C. Actually, anywhere in the Sun Belt pretty much. Here's the USTA to help.

Tim Farwell, the director of tennis at The Villages, won the 60-and-over Florida state title last month. There were two noticeable changes to his game. He was hitting the ball a lot harder and, for the first time in his life, he was grunting with effort on his ground strokes. Are you ever going to admit there is a relationship between grunting and maximum effort?--Jerry White, The Villages, Fla.

• We've been bemoaning the unfortunate rise of grunting in the juniors. Now we have grunting in the 60s division? Oy vey. You sure he wasn't just trying to dislodge phlegm? Again, I think most fans feel that when players -- including Tim Farwell, the director of tennis at The Villages -- are exerting themselves and grunting as a result of genuine effort, it's one thing. When it's a routine midcourt forehand, and the players are replicating the sound track of a woman giving birth to triplets simultaneously, it's another thing. This video pretty much captures it (as well as players' cynicism).

Sorry, Jon, but player grunting gets a free pass until tournaments stop playing loud music on wherever the next court over is located. I suppose it doesn't make your list because tournapop, like the schedule, is an issue where the suits just don't see a problem.--Martin Burkey, Huntsville, Ala.

• It's apples and oranges. Or (Blind) Melons and (Eagle-Eye) Cherries. As much as I hate hearing The Edge of Glory or whatever crackle out of speakers on Court 16 while two players compete on Court 18, that's much different from the opponent generating the cacophonous noise.

You mention Esther Vergeer's winning streak in wheelchair tennis from time to time. I don't want this question to come off sounding the wrong way, and at the same time it is legitimate to wonder what kind of competition she faces. For example, how many people are even in the draw at the Slams?--Joe, Branford, Conn.

• I think that's a fair question. I'll poke around when I'm in Australia, and I know we've had wheelchair competitors write in before. If anyone wants to provide a bit more context -- What is Vergeer's level of competition? How would she fare against a male? -- we'd be happy to examine this. More generally, I think there's nothing wrong with asking these questions. If anything, they're a backhanded compliment, legitimizing the competition, subjecting it to the same curiosities and scrutiny we apply to other divisions.

You can point out that Rafael Nadal hasn't won a hard-court title in over a year, but I think there's really only one reason for that -- Novak Djokovic. Without him, Nadal could have scored the Indian Wells-Miami double and a U.S. Open title. Nadal was playing really well in those finals.--Ruud Spans, The Hague, Netherlands

• But the fact remains: Nadal hasn't won a hard-court title since 2010.

The last time I checked, there was no difference between a solitary Grand Slam and THE Grand Slam. A Grand Slam is winning all four majors, a.k.a. "slams" in a single 12-month window. Originally it was defined to be in the same calendar year but was later modified. So now we have a calendar-year Grand Slam, a Grand Slam and a Career Grand Slam (four separate majors over the course of the career). But at no instance does a Grand Slam ever imply one major. Am I wrong in this understanding of Grand Slam? If I am, please correct me, and I apologize for this comment. If not, may I ask why so many tennis experts are beginning to refer to winning a single major as winning a Grand Slam? It can be especially misleading when reading an article written by you.--Tallboyslim, Santa Ana, Calif.

• You're right. Sort of. We've bastardized the term "Grand Slam." Technically, the four majors compose the Grand Slam, and a Grand Slam winner must claim all four majors in a single calendar year. Per the baseball usage, Grand Slam means the set of four runs that are scored in the home run. Per the Denny's usage, it's the four breakfast components.

But we have taken the liberty of using "Slam" interchangeably with "major." So when we say, "Caroline Wozniacki has never won a Grand Slam," we mean, "She has yet to win a solitary major title." Not: "She has yet to win all four majors." To avoid (or, inadvertently, enhance) confusion, most of us now distinguish between "a" Grand Slam (i.e. a major tournament) and "the" Grand Slam (the box set of all four titles in a given year.) Clear as terre battue, right?

Seems like almost all players on the men's side are described as having a big forehand (except Andy Murray, of course). Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Juan Martin del Potro, Robin Soderling, Tomas Berdych, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Andy Roddick, Fernando Gonzalez ... everyone and their dog has a big forehand. My question: Whose forehand is truly the biggest? I vote Del Potro.--Chee, Houston

• Simply put, I've never seen a bigger forehand than Del Potro's. My only hesitation: In his prime, Gonzalez would go into that "mas macho" mode and take these comically big cuts. For your viewing pleasure.

Del Potro, by contrast, unloads with a certain grace. He has that whipping action and that flourish. But even as the ball is whistling past the opponent, you have the feeling JMDP is going only at 80 percent.

There's no surprise upon reading your #1 prediction for 2012 (JW has a way of generating these scripts). My prediction is this: If Federer's 2011 indoor success isn't followed up with 2012 Grand Slam success, bitter post-match comments will follow.--Reality CK, Panama City Beach, Fla.

• Here's the thing about predictions (which probably inspire more animus than anything I write): They either come to fruition or they don't. So instead of slinging snark, why don't we just see how this pans out? Either one of us eats crow, the other eats crow, we both eat crow. Or, in this case, we can starve together.

One of your tweets said that we should not ignore Margaret Court's take on homosexuality. I think we should absolutely ignore her. If there were a chance she were starting some sort of crusade against homosexuals, then it would be important to step in. However, this is just one person carrying on. The time and energy used to respond could be better used focusing on the positive.--Brandon, Chicago

• I don't think it's an either/or. And when someone -- prominent or not -- expresses sentiment that offends your core beliefs, silence is an unappealing option.

Regarding Margaret Court: I wholeheartedly agree that she has the right to express her beliefs. The difference between my favoring marriage equality and her comments is that I'm not depriving anyone of a right that others already have, an inclusive approach that doesn't really affect her as long as she chooses not to marry a woman. Her view, however, deprives me of the right to marry another consenting adult of my choosing, an exclusive approach that directly impacts me.-- Jack Williams, Arlington, Va.

• Well said.

• This week's installment of encounters with tennis players:

Richard Hanson, Charleston, W.V.: "I have been a HUGE Chris Evert fan since the mid-'70s. Had hundreds of pictures of her on my walls and closet doors and used them as well for my book covers in junior high and high school.

"In my second year of college in the fall of 1986, I suffered from a brain aneurysm, had emergency brain surgery, was in a coma, and the doctors were not sure I would pull through. I was not responding to stimuli, and my family was getting very worried. My sister, Donna (as well as anyone who knew me), was well aware of my admiration for Chris. In a desperate attempt to bring me out of the coma, she looked through all my clippings about Chris I kept in several photo albums, discovered her father taught tennis at Holiday Park in Florida, and through several calls, managed to locate and speak to him over the phone.

"Every call she explained the situation and said she felt if anything would get a response from me, it would be an autographed photo of her. Mr. Evert explained Chris was on the West Coast (not at a tournament, though, as she was recovering from a knee injury) and furnished phone numbers for my sister to attempt to locate her. Amazingly, she did, and again, like the numerous times before, Donna explained the situation to Chris. The next day, at my hospital room, a large package arrived via Federal Express, that contained a poster of Chris sitting in a director's chair in the middle of a court surrounded by tennis balls. In the center was written: 'To Rick, You're a real champ. Best wishes, Chris Evert Lloyd.' ('Real' was underlined.)

"I awoke from the coma that same day and have been fine ever since. To this day, the framed poster hangs front and center in my game room and has always been my most prized possession."

Brooke, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.: "One night a couple years ago I received a mysterious phone call. 'Your mom cheats!' the man on the other end of the phone said without greeting me. I asked who I was speaking with, but the man only responded: 'I'm playing poker with your mom, and she's taking all of my money and cheating!'

"He then hung up. I asked my mom about the call the next day. She said that she saw a guy sitting alone in a casino. He looked sad and lonely so she asked if he wanted to play poker with her. It turns out that the guy was Sam Querrey. After Querrey lost a few poker hands, he (jokingly) demanded that my mom let him speak with a member of her family (hence, the phone call to me).

"We ran into Querrey a few days later at the tournament in Key Biscayne and apologized for not watching his match that day. 'It's OK,' he said. 'If I were you, I'd watch Roddick's match instead of mine also. I'm boring. I don't even want to watch me. I'm garbage.'

"What a nice, self-deprecating, and humble guy. ... That same day, Dmitry Tursunov hung around and took pictures with fans after his match. He made small talk for a while and then asked, 'What do Roger Federer and a lemon have in common? Anyone? Anyone?' He left without giving an answer. Anyone have any idea what he was talking about?"

• Old rule: Your odds of having a submission published improve if you're from my hometown. With that in mind, here's one more player-encounter submission, from Scott Maxwell, Bloomington, Ind.:

"I met Stan Smith at a summer college tournament at Indiana University when he was watching his daughter. He is my first tennis memory, beating Ilie Nastase at Wimbledon when I was about 8 living in Scotland. I have lived in the States for about 20 years and still have an accent but can generally be understood by Americans. When I met him, I let my excitement get the better of me and rambled in a strong Glasgow brogue about adidas shoes, Wimbledon and who knows what else. He looked at me like I was from Mars but did smile a lot!"

• Thanks to Nick De Toustain for this tip: "Perhaps 'Bag readers may enjoy this site, which shows classic matches from the Australian Open -- free!"

Jason Gay is a tennis loser. (Thanks, Mark Flannery.)

Here's an interesting Monica Seles sighting.

• The Marcelo Rios book? Order it here.

• A reader from New Zealand has an interesting story:

"I was hoping you might help with an[other] odd international situation. ... There is a young tennis player called Sacha Jones, who is currently ranked ~270 in the world. She's 21 and has been battling away in New Zealand since she was a kid. Looking at her game, she likely would have done better if her parents had packed her off to Florida or some other training camp elsewhere. They didn't, and they persevered with Tennis NZ for years and years.

"Now, it is no secret in New Zealand that Tennis NZ is thoroughly underfunded and, perhaps as a result, is a complete dog's breakfast of infighting, nepotism and favoritism. It has been since Belinda Cordwell, Kelley Evernden, Chris Lewis or possibly even since Tony Wilding. As far as I'm concerned, it's a miracle that Marina Erakovic has triumphed in the way that she has, but I credit that to her determined Kiwi/Croatian parents, and their insistence on her international coaching support (at what cost to their family in terms of money, we may never know).

"Anyway, Ms. Jones' father was born in Australia. And after working her tail off all these junior years for precious little help or development from NZ, at 21 (which most observers would say is a little late, but better late than never) Sacha has asserted her Australian citizenship through her father in order to progress to the next WTA step. Subsequently, in the down time between Christmas and New Year's when there's precious else to report on, the NZ press looks like it is going to go feral.

"Please, can you give Ms. Jones a little boost in your column? Better yet, an exposé of NZ domestic tennis. The strange dichotomy is that their current marquee events, the ASB Women's Open and Heineken Men's Open (both in January), are wonderful warmups for the Australian Open and have gone from strength-to-strength the last 10 years, but other than that who knows where the money goes. ... The development of NZ tennis juniors is a total joke and also very parochial.

"Look, I don't even know this girl. The closest I come to tennis (other than as a fan) is that my sister-in-law played top-tier club tennis in NZ for almost eight years but not since 2004 or so. I married her brother in 2006. (So that's my disclosure, if any). I'm seriously worried that this girl is going to get pasted in the NZ press, and that would not be her fault. It would be the fault of NZ tennis and its miserable hierarchy, infighting and provinciality. I will leave it entirely up to you to investigate this, insofar as you care, have time, are able to do so, etc. I would appreciate if you would withhold my name. NZ is only four million with one million living outside the country at any given time, which makes it even smaller."

• Donnay has released an updated version of the Pro One, which Andre Agassi used.

• The great Molly Martin adds this to our year-end farewells: Gil de Kermadec (French Tennis Federation and director of classic tennis films) and former player Kurt Nielsen of Denmark.

• New York readers: Gelf's free Varsity Letters sports reading series returns at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Manhattan's The Gallery at LPR. Mark Ribowsky, George Vecsey and Dave Zirin will read from and talk about their work.

• Mark Hodgkinson, fine longtime tennis writer and overall great guy, is starting up a tennis site, thetennisspace.com. Also, the Twitter handle is @thetennisspace. Check it out.

• Zeljko Kuzmanovic of Novi Sad, Serbia: "I have to express my regret that someone managed to persuade you to put Djokovic's sports achievement into political context. I won't comment on those tweets because I strongly believe that you should not mix sports and politics. For neutral readers, now it's even harder to understand what is his burden. What I want to say about him as a father of two beautiful boys is a fact that he is a true champ and idol, on and off the court."

• Randy Burgess of Woodstock, N.Y.: "No question, just congrats to you (and the two bloggers you cited) on provocative but highly thoughtful coverage of Djokovic and politics vs. sports. Sensible rather than shrill, mature rather than myopic."

• Thanks to Hui-Min Tseng of Southampton (UK) for an interesting take from Federer on the calendar.

• Dan B. of Baltimore has a non-tennis submission for long-lost siblings: Comedian Ben Bailey from "Cash Cab" and Baylor basketball player Perry Jones III.

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