MELBOURNE, Australia -- It's late summer down here. It's the dead of winter up there. But Monday -- opening day of the Australian Open -- had the distinct feel of the first day of school. Players reunited in the halls; they showed off their new tans and tats and outfits and haircuts; they humble-bragged about their vacations. (Question: When did Mauritius become so popular?) A cursory glance revealed which players spent the scant offseason working out -- "putting in the hard yards," as they say on local TV here -- and which luxuriated on chaise lounges.
When the bell finally rang, the popular kids were conspicuous, offering displays of how it is they achieved their status. The fairest, perhaps, of them all, Maria Sharapova, brutalized Olga Puchkova 6-0, 6-0. Reports surfaced she had pulled off a Bagel Slam of sorts, but Sharapova has yet to humiliate an opponent by the worst score possible at Wimbledon. She was even asked about it. To her credit, Sharapova responded graciously, and tellingly.
"I don't think that's very relative to anything," she said. "You know, when you're out there and playing, you're just focusing on every point and every game and trying to win as many as you can, and today was just a good scoreline."
Venus Williams -- Sharapova's likely third-round opponent -- lost one game, 6-1, 6-0 over Galina Voskoboeva. Novak Djokovic rolled 6-2, 6-4, 7-5 over Paul-Henri Mathieu, as he tries to become the first man in the Open Era to win three straight titles in Melbourne. The best Australian player, Sam Stosur, managed to win her first match 7-6 (3), 6-3 over Chang Kai-chen, something she couldn't do in 2012. By sundown, not one seed had been bounced.
In high school, the rank-and-file -- the kids whose outfits aren't assessed, whose words aren't parsed -- are often just as interesting as the Queen Bees and the BMOCs. Same in this subculture. When we last left Brian Baker, 27, he had completed a smashingly successful first year. Monday, he won his first-ever match at the Australian Open, outlasting Alex Bogomolov Jr. 7-6 (4), 6-3, 6-7 (0), 3-6, 6-2. Baker next gets No. 20 Sam Querrey, a 6-7 (2), 6-4, 6-2, 6-4 winner over Daniel Munoz-De La Nava, in what may as well be a Davis Cup Challenge match.
Speaking of Americans, lucky loser Tim Smyczek took out Ivo Karlovic. A few days ago, Smyczek failed to qualify and was investigating flights home. Now, at a minimum, he picks up a bunch of ranking points and is $50,000 to the good -- both of which have all sorts of implications when you're outside the top 100.
One of the few players who actually is high-school age was in action as well. Madison Keys, a 17-year-old American, opened her tournament against Casey Dellacqua, an Australian veteran. Keys did nothing to diminish the buzz surrounding her. Playing in front of 6,000 fans on Margaret Court Arena, she did what she does and blasted away. In the second set, her focus lapsed, and she played like a junior for stretches. But in a second-set tiebreaker, she failed to miss a ball, closing out a tight match 6-4, 7-6 (0), ensuring she'll leave Australia in the top 100.
In other words: Long live the model boat club!
I loved your podcast with Lindsay Davenport. Where you guys alluded to Roger Federer saying, "I will play Monday" ... if a player can determine the schedule, isn't that unfair, unless of course, a low-ranked player can get away with the same thing?-- Joe Johnson,Easton, Pa.
? I see this both ways. The top players (and their agents) say, "Look, there are certain perks that ought to come with being a top seed. I'm driving revenue here. I'm going to take every advantage I can get." The opponent says, "Wait a second. The top players have a voice about when they play? That's no fair."
We wrote about this a few years ago.
"I was, though, struck by this line in a Harvey Araton column on the subject. '[Tournament director Jim Curley] cited Mardy Fish, the men's eighth seed, as an example of the latter. Fish would seem to have earned more attention than [Andy] Roddick, whom he has replaced as the highest-ranked American. But Curley said Fish actually prefers to play during the day.
"Um, OK. So players' preferences are part of the equation? And if the preferences are known for Fish -- a newcomer to the top 10, who'd never before been beyond the fourth round of the U.S. Open -- are the many other players of comparable achievement been consulted as well? Seems like an awfully slippery slope."
I think a bigger issue, though, is the court assignment. When Novak Djokovic or Serena Williams or even a top American at the U.S. Open enters the draw, they can be assured their matches will be held on one of two courts. Even us recreational players know that each court has its own quirks and nuances -- whether it's shadows or space behind the baseline or acoustics. When the stars have a familiarity with the real estate, and the opponent may never have set foot on the court before warm-up, that's a real advantage.
I know Chris Evert is not a fan of grunting, but watching a clip of the 1986 French Open final, I was surprised at how much noise she made. See for yourself starting at the 2:25 mark.-- Colin, Anchorage
? A few points. A) NO ONE is a fan of grunting. At least not in this context. I get a kick out of how this is sometimes portrayed as a controversy, as though there is a "pro-grunting" faction who would be disappointed if the braying and wheezing and EEEE-YUUUUhhhing were halted. B) The objection is not only aesthetic but also moral. There's a sense that players grunt tactically and use it as gamesmanship. In Evert's defense, she is exerting herself, and the noise is an offshoot of this. That's fine. It's donkey braying on those mid-court moonballs that peeve. C) Did everyone notice that Michelle Larcher de Brito qualified for the main draw -- and lost Monday? D) I didn't hear any of the ESPN coverage, but back off Chrissy!
What is this mention of an Indian and South African women's doubles pairing? Surely you don't mean Sania Mirza's coupling with American Liezel Huber ...-- Rob, Miami Beach, FL
? In life, as in tennis, you pay the price for imprecision. Yes, of course, Liezel Huber, South African by birth, is now an American citizen.
I just read that CNN is dropping SI for Bleacher Report. What will happen to this awesome mailbag and other content?-- Nestor C., Quezon.City, Philippines
? Just to be clear, in no way does this affect the content. You just need to access it through SI.com.
? Ryan Harrison won Monday. But the draw gods sure have it in for him at these majors. Next opponent: Novak Djokovic.
? For those who missed it: Martina Navratilova does Portlandia.
? Before Ben Balleret was winning tiebreaks 36-34, Josh Levin was on the case. He was a Little Country Olympics legend!
? Jonathon Braden looks at American men's tennis in 2013.
? Milos Raonic has partnered with New Balance.
? J. B. of Portland, Ore., (my all-time favorite city) has long-lost siblings: Fee Waybill, lead singer of The Tubes, and Brad Gilbert.