The most voguish buzzword in sports is narrative, but tennis has always understood the importance of storytelling, what with its heroes and villains, conflicts and resolutions, shifting allegiances and unexpected twists. With the season's first major—the 2013 Australian Open—in, well, the books, here are four plotlines to follow this year:
• Who can beat Novak Djokovic? The men's champ—the first player in tournament history to threepeat—does everything well, doesn't fatigue and has demonstrated a lethal taste for combat. With Roger Federer now 31 and Rafael Nadal beset by knee issues (he hasn't played since last June), it falls chiefly to Andy Murray, who lost the final 6--7, 7--6, 6--3, 6--2, to solve the riddle of the Djoker.
• Victoria Azarenka of Belarus beat China's Li Na 4--6, 6--4, 6--3 to defend her title, but it came at a price. Already appreciably less esteemed than the two players ranked beneath her—No. 2 Maria Sharapova and No. 3 Serena Williams, who are friendlier to both the press and to rival players—Azarenka further diminished her popularity when she took a medical timeout late in her semifinal victory over phenom Sloane Stephens. The injury that caused Azarenka to leave the court at a critical juncture? She was ... nervous. "Bush league," ESPN commentator and former U.S. Davis Cup captain Pat McEnroe called it. Can Azarenka rebuild her image? Or will she embrace the role of villainess—which wouldn't be so bad for a sport that lacks a good one at the moment.
• The tournament felt a bit bereft without Nadal, whose injuries are an unfortunate consequence of his violent, hyperphysical style. When the swashbuckling Spaniard returns next week in Chile—his first action since Lukas Rosol upset him in five sets in the second round at Wimbledon last year—the sport can only hope it's as the full Rafa, not a compromised version.
February 4, 2013
• Dude, is Sloane Stephens, like, totally for real? The 19-year-old Californian beat five players—including the Mighty Serena by the score of 3--6, 7--5, 6--4 on Jan. 23—to reach the semis and crack the top 20. She also crushed it in the image department, revealing herself to be candid, funny and thoroughly charming. (Instead of castigating Azarenka for the breach of sportsmanship, Stephens merely suggested that she had "a p.p.,": a personal problem.) Assuming she can build on her Australian Open breakthrough, she is on course to be the next American star, male or female.