The tennis chattering class pondered it like a Sphyxian riddle: What extraordinary event would have to occur for Serena Williams NOT to win the Australian Open title? She has, after all, won the last two majors. Plus Olympic gold. Plus 35 of the last 36 matches she had played. Plus the tune-up title in Brisbane. Plus, these days, she doesn't simply defeat players; she demoralizes them.
"I always feel like I don't know how to play tennis when I play against you," Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova complained to Williams last week after losing 6-2, 6-1 in the Brisbane final. Pavlyuchenkova, we should note, is seeded 24th here.
How can she not win? We got a hint just five games into her opening match Tuesday. Williams was playing -- which is to say mauling -- her opponent, Edina Gallovits-Hall. Up 4-0, she raced to the corner to retrieve a forehand. Her feet caught. And she ended up on her back, knees pointed to the sky, hands covering her face. She had rolled her right ankle. Scribbling madly in a notepad, we coded it "R-ankle."
"Rankle" would also describe -- in the mildest terms possible -- the effect of Williams' injury on tournament promoters, sponsors, the WTA, TV execs and fans. At least on the women's side, she is
During a seven-minute delay, she received treatment as silence washed over Rod Laver Arena. The Republic of Tennis held its breath. After a tape job, she kept playing. And mauling. Final score: 6-0, 6-0. ("I don't know if I'm a good player; I'm an average player," she said, hilariously, when asked about the scoreline.)
Will she play Thursday?
"Oh, I'll be out there," she said. "Unless something fatal happens to me, there's no way I'm not going to be competing. I'm alive. My heart's beating. I'll be fine."
Yet she was, in a word, rankled.
"Obviously, there's swelling," Williams said. "I hope it's not serious."
Last year, of course, a similar injury was serious. She rolled her ankle in Brisbane. Clearly compromised in her movement at the Australian Open, she lost in the fourth round to Ekaterina Makarova.
"I thought, 'Oh, not again,' " Williams said.
Novak Djokovic plays Wednesday. So does Maria Sharapova. And Venus Williams. But the most anticipated action -- or inaction -- may revolve around Serena's practice schedule. An entire sport hopes that a misstep on a running forehand does not do what 127 other players are unlikely to accomplish: Take the biggest star out of the performance.
? Duly noted. Sometimes programs and the like are preprinted and can't reflect updated rankings. But, yes, this seems like an easy add.
? We shouldn't be in the business putting any players to pasture. All of us -- not just athletes -- ought to retire only when we're ready.
But it's fair game to assess the prospects of older players, and an awful lot do seem to be playing on bald tires. This includes James Blake, 34, who fell to Donald Young in the qualifying rounds here. (For more reasons than one, it depresses the hell out of me to write that line.) Ivo Karlovic, almost 34, is no longer a fearsome server -- and thus no longer a fearsome player -- and he fell to a lucky loser in the first round. Lleyton Hewitt, 31, looked like a decidedly decaffeinated version of his old self Monday. He lost to a younger, spryer, more powerful Janko Tipsarevic in straight sets. And, yes, Hantuchova, who turns 30 this spring, is a shell of the player she once was. She lost to qualifier Yung-Jan Chan.
When to say when? Again, it's personal. And there's no conversion chart, much less easy answer. Kimiko Date-Krumm, 42, is still out here winning matches. The notion that once players turn 30 they've hit their sell-by date is no longer the right metric, either.
Players also have different thresholds for how low to set the bar. Some, like Andy Roddick, will give it up when they feel that they can no longer compete at the highest level. Others have a lower bar. They are, to mangle metaphors, happy to lick the bottom of the glass, playing until their bodies (or finances) absolutely give out. No right answer here. The overarching goal of most players is to conduct their careers without regrets. For some, there's a regret in leaving too early before marshaling all possible resources for "one last push," as you put it. For others, regret comes by staying at the party too late.
? No one is saying Stephens is the second coming of Serena. What we are saying: Here is a teenager, already in the top 25, who has an awful lot of assets, in terms of both her game and disposition.
? Granted, there were extenuating circumstances this year, but let's take a moment to compare baseball's Hall of Fame standards to tennis'. To the uninitiated, when the ballots were counted last week, baseball voters inducted zero -- zero -- players this year.
Anyway, is Li a Hall of Famer? As of today, her achievements are on the light side, at least for enshrinement. One Slam, one more Slam final, seven titles, high ranking of No. 4. On the other hand, she has won a Slam -- which has been enough for others -- plus she maxes out the "cultural importance" category. If the voting were today, she would have a shot. Fortunately, the voting is not today. Maybe she can bag another major, and then it's case closed.
? I like it. But why not be more creative? Instead of grunters, wailers and moaners, why not "armadillos in labor," "asthmatic goats" and "weed-whackers with stuck gears"?
? Ashleigh Barty, 16, took a set off top-20 player Dominika Cibulkova and then wilted 3-6, 6-0, 6-1. As defeats go, it was more respectable. Afterward, she tweeted: "Destroyed. Sorry and thank you."
? Ricardo Sanchez has coached a number of players, including Nadia Petrova, a straight-set loser to Date-Krumm. Here are some interesting thoughts Sanchez shares on the WTA.
? From Tom Tebbutt's blog: "After his surprisingly convincing 6-4, 6-2, 6-4 win over up-and-coming Grigor Dimitrov on Monday, I went to Julien Benneteau's media conference in a small interview room. I got the sense from the questions from some of the French journalists that they thought Dimitrov hadn't given the gutsiest effort, using the French equivalent of 'sufficiency,' which seemed to suggest Dimitrov, rumoured to be Maria Sharapova's current squeeze, had not exactly put everything into it.
"But the best part was being there to learn about what a sports fiend Benneteau is. He's even interested in cricket and told of how, because it rains so much in England, he first had the sport explained to him by a French coach in 1999 while he was there for a tournament.
"So he follows some of the Test cricket going on in Australia at the moment, but he's interested in lots of sports and watched the beginning of the Atlanta Falcons-Seattle Seahawks NFL playoff game when he woke up before his match on Monday."
? One of you requested a link to this NPR piece.
? Here's a fun game for the changeovers someone suggested: Cast the Big Four in the men's game as the Big Four in
? Doyle Srader of Eugene, Ore., has long-lost siblings: Pete Sampras and George P. Bush, the grandson of one president, nephew of another and soon, perhaps, a candidate for Texas governor.