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Stephens' emergence shows against Serena; more Mailbag

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Sloane Stephens challenged Serena Williams well in a 6-4, 6-3 loss in Brisbane.

Now that she's played Serena Williams, and for the good part of it matched with her rally for rally, how do you think Sloane Stephens will go with greater attention as she moves her way up the rankings?-- Craig, Adelaide, Australia

? I think the media and fans sometimes tend to conflate their personal fondness for a player with a fondness for their game. Stephens is exceedingly likable and, in the past, I've wondered if this hasn't clouded judgment. But over the past nine months or so, she emerged as a truly legitimate top player. She has the speed and court coverage. She has an all-court game that translates well to a variety of surfaces and conditions. As you noted, she stood toe-to-toe with Williams in rallies. The same perspective and winning personality that make her appealing can be an asset, as well. Whether "top player" means top five or top 20 remains to be seen. (Note: She is now top 30.) Her serve needs work. She could stand some bulk. Her focus tends to waver, both micro and macro. But there's a lot to like here.

Is that a typo, or did a player really win a tiebreaker 36-34?-- June, Sacramento

? No typo. Sunday at the $10,000 USTA Pro Circuit Futures in Plantation, Fla., Benjamin Balleret defeated Guillaume Couillard 7-6 (34), 6-1.

Crazy backstory:

a) Both players are from tiny Monaco. ("A sunny place for shady people," Somerset Maugham.) I'm thinking they were both thinking: We had to cross an ocean and come to this land of T-shirt stores, Everglades Expresways and Bud Lite beach bars to play a 70-point tiebreaker? b) There were no officials, so the players called their own lines! c) This was only a qualifying match. d) Balleret beat Brian Baker -- now a top-60 player -- and then lost to Jack Sock at this event last year. His total winnings for reaching the quarters? $290.

When you chalk up Andre Agassi's highly unusual -- particularly in tennis -- late-career resurgence to coasting through his 20s, racking up fewer miles than his contemporaries, is there any part of you that wonders if that is really the most likely explanation for an athlete defying Father Time? We all like Agassi, but if this explanation were valid then wouldn't there be a lot of former high school and college players who drop the game in the 20s, then discover they're awesome in their 30s because their legs are fresh?-- Tobin, Boston

? Yeah, exactly. Spend a few of your years in your 20s either injured or burnt out and you get those years back -- with accrued interest, forgive the pun -- on the back end. More generally we keep talking about the dearth of teenagers in the sport today. Doesn't it stand to reason that players who start later can finish later? If there weren't more thirtysomethings still playing at a high level, it would be curious.

How is it that Lesia Tsurenko was the lucky loser to replace Maria Sharapova in Brisbane instead of Vania King? King was the top seed and lost at the final stage of qualifying, so how was it that she didn't get the spot?-- Andy, Winston Salem, N.C.

? Again, is there a harsher term in sports than lucky loser? "Hey, you suck. But fortune is on your side! You're in the draw! And you still have the shape of an 'L' on your forehead." Anyway, when you're out of the draw, you need to sign in with the supervisor to make yourself eligible to take another's spot should they withdraw. (Note the lengths we're going to avoid the phrase "lucky loser.") We're told that in Brisbane, neither King nor another higher-ranked player, Kristyna Plishkova, signed in. Hence, the spot went to Tsurenko.

Many of the top women's doubles pairings look new to me: Anna-Lena Groenefeld/Kveta Peschke, Maria Kirilenko/Lisa Raymond, Nadia Petrova/Katarina Srebotnik, Liezel Huber/SaniaMirza. Has there been a big shakeup?-- Colin, Anchorage

? This is what I love about tennis: a fan in Anchorage is curious about partnerships involving a South African and an Indian, before they both play in Australia. Yes, lots of shakeups in the netherworld that is doubles. (You know what the women's doubles subculture needs for stability: a set of twins who never leave the other's side.) One day a savvy TV executive is going to make that reality show on the soap operatic world of doubles. Until then, I can only float the suggestion so many times ...

Please use your considerable influence and pass on to the ATP/WTA folks that the new "live" scoreboard version (protennislive.com) is terrible. It is incredibly slow, so it is only barely "live." The iPhone app is way better, even though I would still like them to create a specific iPad app.-- Barbara Beck, Rochester, Minn.

? I'm the anti-Zellweger. You lost me at "considerable influence." Tennis sometimes does technology about as well as Lord Grantham does portfolio diversification. Eager to try out the Australian Open app next week.

If you could pick at least one best feature (location, facility, fan interest) from the Australian, French, Wimbledon and U.S. Open and create the perfect Grand Slam, how would you do it?-- Thomas Alonzo, Columbia, S.C.

? It all depends on what you like. (And your airline mile status.) But the short answer: you can't go wrong. Each has lots to recommend; each has a few liabilities. I have Melbourne on the brain and maintain it's an absolutely first-rate experience. Great event. Great city. Great weather, at least when Mother Nature isn't blowing hot air. But it's about as far, geographically, from Columbia, S.C., as you could possibly be.

Do you really think Roger Federer is only going to play 14 tournaments next year?-- Helen, Philadelphia

? Schedules are, by their very nature, flexible. But for years now, Federer has been deliberate about his schedule. And that's only going to intensify as he gets on in age. Note for instance, the gap between Indian Wells and the middle of clay-court season. (He's missing Miami -- no Snowbird, he; no IMG client, he -- as well as Basel.)

Two takeaways: clearly it's all about the Slams, as one would expect. There's some padding in there. If, say, the No. 1 ranking is within reach, he may pop up more often.

Shots, Miscellany

? Australian Open preview podcast with Lindsay Davenport here.

? Here's a great interview with Mary Carillo.

? The SAP Open has doubled down on the "Legends" draw.

? Press releasing: The BNP Paribas Showdown brings tennis back to Madison Square Garden on March 4 with Serena Williams, Victoria Azarenka, Juan Martin del Potro and Rafael Nadal.

? Spare a thought for Ross Hutchins.

? More Tennis Podcasts from David Law.

? Australian Open Suicide pool, everyone enter here.

? The Tennis Channel will be devoting more than 180 hours of coverage to the Australian Open.

? In the interest of equal time, ESPN will not only broadcast tennis but will be bringing some Old School AC/DC as well.

? The USTA Pro Circuit began with two clay-court events in Florida -- the $10,000 men's Futures in Plantation and the $25,000 women's event in Innisbrook.

? Interested in a tennis-themed novel for young adults? Kris Kreisman of Chicago is here to help.

? Juan J., Houston: I took a look at Grigor Dimitrov's service stats from Brisbane and how they compare to last year. If he keeps up this kind of serving, he'll surely climb the rankings.

? Venus and Serena endorsing iPhone ... but couldn't they have been playing tennis?

? Matthew Kauffman of Olney, Md.: Long lost cousins: Marcos Baghdatis and Jared Allen.

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