Rafael Nadal has not played a competitive match since getting ousted from Wimbledon in the second round in June. Seven months ago. We thought he'd make his return in Australia, but a virus halted his training. Unwilling to do anything halfway, Nadal pulled out of the Australian Open rather than go into it ill-prepared. Tennis fans also will be denied a rematch of last year's grueling, history-making final between Nadal and Novak Djokovic. While pictures of Rafa on the beach might be nice for some, we'd rather see him on the courts.
There's no better way to cure the winter blues than by fixating on Melbourne's neon blue courts at the 2013 Australian Open. Many top players resumed competitive play two weeks ago, leaving many questions heading into the first Grand Slam of the year. Here are 10 of the biggest questions entering the fortnight's play.
Can anyone stop Serena?
Serena Williams seemed to have spent the first half of 2012 settling into a zone because, beginning with Wimbledon, she was unstoppable. And 2013 is looking no different. The younger Williams sister dominated in Brisbane before taking a few days' rest before the first major of the year. As of now, the only player who can stop Serena Williams is, well, Serena Williams. If she can keep her mind clear and focused and her fitness level high — as she seemingly has done for a while now — she is unbeatable.
Does Sharapova have a chance to win?
She does, but it will be an uphill battle. A three-time finalist in Melbourne — and one-time winner — Maria Sharapova withdrew from Brisbane last week to rest an injured collarbone. This type of injury in tennis means you can't serve to your potential or hit ferocious overheads. Should a little rest be all she needed, look for Sharapova to be a contender. But if she's not fully healed, the No. 2-ranked player could exit early Down Under.
Can Azarenka defend her Australian Open title?
While it's possible, world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka has a tough road ahead of her. The biggest roadblock, of course, is Serena Williams — who closed out 2012 winning Wimbledon, the US Open and the Olympic gold medal. Then, Serena went on to win the Brisbane title to begin 2013. What did Azarenka do? She won three more titles in 2012, but then she took a walkover loss to Serena in Brisbane last week citing an injury caused by a bad pedicure. Vika needs to toughen up to get through a draw with a potential semifinal matchup with Serena.
Who has momentum going into Melbourne?
Poland's Agnieszka Radwanska is on a 9-0 streak going into Melbourne — winning titles in Auckland last week and Sydney this week. Last year, she reached the Wimbledon final and even pushed Serena Williams to a third set before losing. Radwanska has lost in the quarterfinals each of her past two years in Melbourne. However, the Slams are long tournaments and all this court time leading up to the Aussie Open could backfire on her.
Whom should we keep an eye on?
While there are many to watch, our eyes are on Sloane Stephens of the United States. Currently ranked No. 29, Stephens turned heads last year with a fourth-round finish at Roland Garros and followed it up by reaching the third round at Wimbledon and the US Open. She began 2013 with a third-round loss to Serena Williams in Brisbane and a semifinal appearance at Hobart. She's not afraid of big matches and shows up ready to play. She may not win a Slam this year, but she will make it tough for those who cross her path.
How are the Aussies this year?
Much like the American men, Australian men's tennis has seen better days. But unlike his American counterpart Andy Roddick, who retired, former world No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt (left) is still going strong at 31. As of Thursday, he reached his first tour final since last summer's Hall of Fame tournament in Newport, RI. Hewitt hasn't won a title since 2010, but he could be inspired enough to make a run in Melbourne. Currently ranked 64, young Bernard Tomic (right) has shown massive amounts of promise but has yet to even play for a title. He has also parted ways with Australian Davis Cup and seems to be a bit lost. On the women's side, Sam Stosur (center) is capable of winning a major but lets nerves get the best of her in Melbourne. She's gotten no further than the round of 16 in 2008 and 2010. Last year, on the heels of her US Open win, she was ousted in the first round.
Will they clean up again?
Novak Djokovic (left), Andy Murray (center) and Roger Federer (right) — along with Rafael Nadal the first half of 2012 — dominated in almost every tournament they played. The four accounted for all four majors (Djokovic winning the Australian Open, Nadal winning the French Open, Federer winning Wimbledon and Murray winning the US Open), Olympic gold (Murray) and combined for 19 titles. Murray already has one title under his belt in 2013, winning Brisbane last week. Expect one of these three to take top prize in Melbourne — and give Djokovic the early edge, as Murray and Federer are in the other half of the draw.
Who's waiting in the wings?
When you get past Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Andy Murray (and of course Rafael Nadal, when he's healthy), there are several top-notch players just clamoring for a taste — or second taste — of Grand Slam glory. Spain's David Ferrer (left) assumes the No. 4 seed in Nadal's absence. The gutty Ferrer is capable of big wins, but can't seem to crack the code of the top three players. But the Australian heat could be an equalizer and Ferrer is one of the fittest players on tour. Juan Martin del Potro (center) has one Slam title under his belt; as the No. 6 seed, he is poised to challenge for another if he can stay injury-free. The No. 7 seed, France's Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (right), is due for a break. He was a finalist in Melbourne in 2008 and a semifinalist in 2010 — could this be the year he wins it all?
Who are the men's American heroes?
Well, in Melbourne, we really don't have a good answer. Andy Roddick is officially retired. Top-ranked American John Isner pulled out of the Aussie Open after injuring his knee at last week's Hopman Cup. Former top-10 player Mardy Fish can't seem to get past the medical issues that hampered his 2012 campaign. That leaves a trio of wild cards in (L-R) Ryan Harrison, Brian Baker and Sam Querrey. Baker came out of nowhere in 2012 and worked his way into the top 60. Querrey is still working back after sitting out 2011, and Harrison is still young but shows a lot of promise. Will any of these guys do anything in Melbourne? They might be good for an upset or two, but we're not counting on any of them to hoist the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup.