THE AUSTRALIAN OPEN is often likened to tennis's spring training. After the offseason, the players arrive with fresh outlooks and fresh bodies. The air is thick with promise; no one has struck out yet. The analogy, though, goes only so far. The Australian Open is one of the sport's four tentpole events. That is—in striking contrast to lazy split-squad games in Scottsdale or Sarasota—in Melbourne, everyone tries their damnedest.
This year in particular there's another point of distinction: Instead of focusing on young prospects and live arms and unmined gems, the 2019 Australian Open will spotlight the familiar veterans. Can the sport's preeminent 37-year-olds, Serena Williams and Roger Federer, conjure some magic once again? What is the status of Rafael Nadal, who is "only" 32, but much older in tennis years, the legacy of all that toil and trouble on his body? Can Maria Sharapova—30 in rankings; 31 in years—revive her moribund career? For that matter, can the Bryan twins, now reunited and now age 40, still carry a doubles draw?
As for picking the singles winners, tennis, as usual, features a tale of two tours. On the men's ledger, Novak Djokovic—resurgent after a strange 24-month rumspringa—has won the last two majors and now arrives to the one he has already taken six times. He's the top seed, and you're well within your rights to pick him against the entire field. (And don't look now, but a 15th career major would put him back in the G.O.A.T. pasture, only two behind Nadal and five back of Federer.)
The women's draw is less an open field as it is a gaping chasm. Any of a dozen players could win and it would surprise precisely no one. After her breakthrough U.S. Open title, Naomi Osaka arrives thick with confidence and expectation. Defending champ Caroline Wozniacki always plays well in Melbourne. Aryna Sabalenka, a 20-year-old heavy hitter from Belarus, is among the hottest players on tour. And lest we forget, for all the attendant drama, Serena reached the finals of the last two majors.
Our pick, though: Simona Halep of Romania. She arrives lacking a coach but possessing much self-belief, after winning her first slam title in 2018. She's tough, she's agile and she's a pro's pro. Which means, unfooled by the calendar, she knows the Australian Open is no exhibition.
SIGN OF THE APOCALYPSE
THE CROTCH OF A LIFE-SIZED STATUE OF CRISTIANO RONALDO IN PORTUGAL HAS BEEN BURNISHED BY FANS RUBBING THE FRONT OF HIS SHORTS.
THEY SAID IT
"PERHAPS HE WATCHED THE WORLD CUP OF SOCCER. NEYMAR IS PROBABLY HIS BEST FRIEND."
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