Wednesday December 28th, 2011

Aaaaand we're baack!

If you can believe it, we're only a couple of days away from the start of the 2012 tennis season. Remember a few months ago when the last tennis ball fell and we could all relax, stretch out and enjoy the offseason? Yeah, that was, at this writing, just 24 days ago. I guess time flies when you're bored and jonesing for some tennis. So get me a sixer of Red Bull and let's get this party started. Nothing brings a smile to my face like the first glimpse of those Australian Open True Blue painted courts. It's like seeing snow on Christmas morning.

Looking at the early player schedules, one thing is clear: The bigger and more experienced you are, the fewer lead-up tournaments you play. Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Andy Murray, Juan Martin Del Potro, Andy Roddick, Serena Williams and Kim Clijsters are only playing one official tournament, as was Maria Sharapova's plan before she had to withdraw from Brisbane due to her ankle injury. Everyone else is looking for two bites at the apple before heading to Melbourne, which should translate into some tantalizing matches to begin the year.

Here's a quick look at who's playing where in the key tournaments and exhibitions leading up to the Australian Open.

Abu Dhabi, Dec. 29-31 -- A six-man exhibition played over the course of three days, the Mubadala World Tennis Championship has become the Australian Open warmup tournament of choice for Federer and Nadal, with Djokovic joining them for the first time this year.

Notable entries: Djokovic, Nadal, Federer, Ferrer, Tsonga, Monfils.

Doha, Jan. 2-7 -- Nadal and Federer continue their tour of the Middle East, competing in Doha immediately following the exhibition in Abu Dhabi. They'll be joined by Tsonga and Monfils (do the two Frenchmen come as a package deal these days?). Could we see two Nadal-Federer matches in the span of a week and a half? It's possible.

Notable entries: Nadal, Federer, Tsonga, Monfils, Troicki.

Hopman Cup, Dec. 31-Jan. 7 -- A fan favorite exhibition held on the west coast of Australia in Perth, this nation-based mixed team competition provides an ideal warm-up scenario. The round-robin format guarantees each player at least three singles matches in a low pressure, low-key environment. Personally, I can't wait to see Tomas Berdych and Petra Kvitova play mixed doubles together. The other teams (and the crowd) might want to bring some protective gear.

Notable entries, men: Berdych, Verdasco, Dimitrov, Gasquet, Fish, Hewitt.

Notable entries, women: Wozniacki, Kvitova, Li, Bartoli, Mattek-Sands.

Notable mixed doubles teams: Kvitova/Berdych, Mattek-Sands/Fish, Bartoli/Gasquet.

Brisbane, Jan. 1-8 -- Serena, Clijsters and Sam Stosur will start their campaigns in Brisbane, the first WTA Premier event of the season. Even without Sharapova, it's still a top-notch field, with Andrea Petkovic, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Jelena Jankovic also confirmed. As for the men, Andy Murray has shifted his pre-Slam routine by opting out of Hopman Cup (where he played the last two years) and making his debut in Brisbane.

Notable entries, women: Stosur, Petkovic, Schiavone, Serena Williams, Clijsters, Jankovic, Pavlyuchenkova, Cibulkova, Ivanovic.

Notable entries, men: Murray, Simon, Dolgopolov, Nishikori, Tomic, Baghdatis, Harrison.

• Auckland, January 2-7 (women), Jan. 9-14 (men) -- Are we sure this isn't a clay tournament? By the looks of the ATP lineup one would think so. Auckland may be a step down from Brisbane in prestige (the tournaments, not the cities), but they were able to confirm a strong lineup of players from both sides of the aisle, as well as three young Americans ready to make a splash in Melbourne.

Notable entries, women: Lisicki, Kuznetsova, Pennetta, Goerges, Peng, McHale

Notable entries, men: Ferrer, Verdasco, Monaco, Almagro, Young, Harrison

Sydney, Jan. 9-14 -- As of now, nine of the top 10 women are confirmed for Sydney, though look for that to change depending on what happens at the Hopman Cup and Brisbane. I suspect a lot of the women confirmed for Sydney in case their preparation was derailed early elsewhere (i.e., losing early or suffering an injury), but if this lineup holds, there will be some high-octane matches being played a mere week before the start of the Australian Open. The men's field is strong with a very entertaining mix of styles, with the likes of Del Potro, Isner, Gasquet and Lopez in the mix.

Notable entries, women: Wozniacki, Kvitova, Azarenka, Stosur, Li, Zvonareva, Radwanska, Bartoli, Petkovic.

Notable entries, men: Del Potro, Baghdatis, Isner, Gasquet, Lopez.

Kooyong, Jan. 11-14 -- The last exhibition of the warmup season, Kooyong invites eight men to come and duke it out over four days in a promotion/relegation scheme that guarantees each man at least three matches. Andy Roddick will start his season here. Notable entries: Tsonga, Berdych, Fish, Roddick, Monfils, Raonic, Tomic, Melzer.

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