We're halfway to finals period of the Australian Open, and the event has come to resemble a one-room schoolhouse. We have 17-year-olds enrolled alongside 42-year-olds. We have the usual valedictorian candidates and some upstarts who clearly prepared over the break. We have students with expertise in different fields. With all but 24 players expelled, herewith, our midterm grades:
Maria Sharapova: Through four matches, she's dropped five games and has looked all but untouchable. Literally. As in: players are unable to make contacts with her shots.
American women: Serena Williams is the odds-on favorite to win. Madison Keys, age 17, is the real deal. So is Sloane Stephens, who's into week two and will be in the top 20 by tournament's end. And before her back seized up, Jamie Hampton had a real chance of knocking off top seed Victoria Azarenka.
Male contenders: The usual suspects -- Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Roger Federer -- are through to week two (Djokovic lived dangerously into Monday morning, though). Of course they did. The next likely candidates -- save, Juan Martin del Potro -- are alive as well. David Ferrer, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Tomas Berdych all continue to take aim at the glass ceiling.
Russian hands: Five of them -- Sharapova, Ekatarina Makarova, Elena Vesnina, the resurgent Svetlana Kuznetsova and Maria Kirilenko -- charge into the second week.
French legion: Tsonga, Richard Gasquet, Jeremy Chardy (Del Potro's conqueror) and Gilles Simon remain. And, more good news: Gael Monfils failed to close out Simon, but it's great to see him back. And up to his old tricks.
NGUYEN: Tennis world abuzz over Simon-Monfils 71-shot rally (video)
Kimiko Date-Krumm: A mere stripling at 42, she reached the third round in singles and is still alive in doubles, having knocked off the second seeds. Take that, Leslie Mann.
Andy Murray and Serena Williams: Presented with the International Tennis Writers Association's top awards, the his and hers Ambassadors of the Year for 2012
Venus Williams: Beaten soundly by Sharapova is a match that ended 6-1, 6-3 but could have been worse. On the other hand, she deserves commendation for her characteristic grace, including restraint when Sharapova celebrated like this.
Bernard Tomic: Nice to see his career back on track. Nice to see a young player with so much variety and versatility. But an awful lot of hype (and attitude) for a guy who beat an injured opponent in round one; struggled to beat a qualifier in round two; and then was taken to school by Federer.
NGUYEN: Where does Tomic go from here?
Rafael Nadal: Shame he's not here. Hindsight is veinte/veinte, but given his improved health, the mild weather and a day between matches, you wonder if he might have been well-served to have tried to play here. Still, we take it as a good sign that he's moved up his return date twice now. Set to begin 2013 campaign in Vina del Mar, Chile. Ole.
American men: With Andy Roddick retired and John Isner and Mardy Fish out of action, it was going to be tough sledding. Even so ... James Blake lost to Donald Young in qualifying (And Young failed to qualify.) Ryan Harrison was bulldozed by Djokovic. Oh, and Jesse Levine now plays for Canada. By Friday, there were no Americans left.
Sam Stosur: The best Aussie hope has always suffered shaky nerves. Her own coach -- with typical Australian candor -- admitted, "We've tried everything." Even so, her choke job against Jie Zheng, leading 5-2 in the third set and dropping the next five games, was some unsightly theater.
Fate: Someone didn't get the memo. Brian Baker isn't supposed to injure his knee. In fact, if you believe in karma, he should be due for about 50 unbroken years of health.
The Bagelettes: Two players -- for decorum's sake, we won't mention them by name; you can look them up, if you're so inclined -- traveled here to win a grand total of zero games. On the plus side, they emerged $25,000 wealthier.
The ubiquitous neon yellow outfits: You're better than this, adidas.
Serena Williams' treatment of herself: Five games into her first match, she slips on the court and injures her right ankle. In her next match, she clocks herself in the mouth her racket. It's as if she's trying to do what the other 127 players are unlikely to do and knock herself out of competition.
NGUYEN: Williams busts mouth with racket