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  • Will Serena Williams defend her title in Melbourne? What do all of the early-season injuries mean for 2018? Plus notes on protected ranking rules, a young rising star and more.
By Jon Wertheim
January 03, 2018

Happy 2018, everyone. Quick housekeeping….

• We’ll have some 2018 Australian Open preview pieces next week.

• Drinking game: you need to bury a shot every time you hear the phrase “if he/she is healthy enough to play.”

Bob Bryan was our most recent podcast guest and he was terrific.

Next up: Mark Leschly, CEO of Universal Tennis.

Take our 2018 Tennis Quiz.

A short Mailbag to ease in to 2018…..

Have a question or comment for Jon? Email him at jon_wertheim@yahoo.com or tweet him @jon_wertheim.

Here’s a random one for you, Jon. If tennis didn't exist, what tennis player would still be a professional athlete? In other words, would Rafael Nadal be a professional soccer player? Would John Isner be a professional basketball player?
Monty K., New York

• It’s an interesting hypothetical. Given Nadal’s genes and athleticism and persistence, might he be a professional soccer player had his uncle not shoved a racket in his (non-dominant) hand? Sure. Could Gael Monfils have been a pro in another sport, such as team handball? Sure. (Much as we all love John Isner, he’s not NBA material.) I would think the real opportunity resides on the women’s side. CoCo Vandeweghe in the WNBA. Martina Hingis bringing her touch and cold-bloodedness to bear as a golfer. This might be apocryphal, but I recall the story that, as a teenager, Steffi Graf had better times—and better form—than many members of the German Olympic track team.

Maybe a better thought exercise: which current athletes in other sports could have had successful careers in tennis? Gordon Hayward is an obvious choice. But imagine if tennis had gotten to Messi or LeBron James before soccer and basketball had. This, ultimately, is the sport’s challenge. Identifying talent before young athletes are poached by other sports.

Simple question, Jon. Do we ever see Andy Murray again? I sure hope so.
Simon P.

• Yes, I didn’t want to start on such a downer note. But injury-mania is the story of the week. With no irony, here were the tennis headlines at one point this week:

Leg cramps force Muguruza to retire early in third set of opening match at Brisbane
Sock injured at Hopman Cup
Djokovic withdraws from Abu Dhabi exo—perhaps uncertain for Aussie Open
Murray withdraws from Brisbane, considering right hip surgery
Serena loses to Ostapenko in first match back
Nadal withdraws from Brisbane
Stephens uncertain if she’ll be ready for Aussie Open
Wawrinka not sure he’ll be ready for Aussie Open

Here it is, the first week of the new season and these are your stories? It was as if Ingmar Bergman had an internship in the marketing department. Maybe, just maybe, there’s a dispiriting trend here that needs serious attention?

Perhaps most distressingly, Andy Murray sent this Instagram message, which sounded an awful lot like someone taking the existential route and confronting his athletic mortality. This is, at once, heartening and heart-rending.

One of the cardinal rules of sports journalism (and, I would argue, fandom) is to resist questioning an athlete’s injury or speculating about recovery. Murray is 30, which, by modern tennis chronology, means that he could take off the entire season and still have some meaty years left. But hip injuries are serious business, in tennis, yes, but also in life. You trust/hope that Murray will give himself every opportunity to return to competition. But he won’t risk his comfort and mobility for the next 50 years over it.

The outpouring on Tuesday was tremendous, as it should be. This is a consummate professional but also a consummate mensch. At the same time—and the two aren't mutually exclusive—shouldn’t we be asking: what is it about modern tennis that makes even the most diligent and conscientious athletes so vulnerable to injury?

Tsitsipas!!!! Can you say, “Young Federer”?? Wow!!!
Helen of Philly

• “Next Federer.” “Young Federer.” “Baby Federer.” Even “Off-brand Federer.” That’s a curse, the establishing of unrealistic expectations. And yet Helen is onto something. Want a start-up for your venture capital? You could do much worse than Tsitsipas. He is only 19, which, in tennis years, means that he can scarcely sprout a mustache. He is 6’4” and has that Marat Safin-like body. And, man, can he do a lot with the ball. (In the last 90 days, he’s beaten both Goffin and Cuevas.)

Is there any updated information available on Victoria Azarenka's custody situation? It really seems to be dragging on. It's incredibly frustrating to hear she had to miss the tournament in New Zealand and may now miss the Aussie Open as well. 
Michelle H.

• We’ve said this before: I find this to be a very awkward situation journalistically. In a vacuum, the perplexing absence of a two-time Grand Slam winner is fair game for reporting and speculation. But we’re talking about a custody dispute that revolves around a young child who has no agency here. So my impulse is to back off the reporting and let parties release information as they see fit.

Hi Jon. The following question last week seems to be a follow-up to my question the earlier week, so thought I would weigh in. I am surprised you didn't call out more specific matches between non-Federer rivals. Below is the list that comes to mind immediately, without even having to check back on the scores, etc.

Djokovic vs. Nadal: 2013 French Open SF: the greatest clay court match ever played, 2009 Madrid SF: the best three-set match ever played, period

Mary Carillo once observed that Nadal was part of the greatest match on grass, clay and hardcourts (2012 Aussie final). And Djokovic is part of two of them. I agree the 2012 Aussie final was not fun to watch, but this was only because of the slow pace between points, not the points themselves. With some deft editing, it should make the cut.

Djokovic vs. Murray: 2012 Aussie SF: Defining match of the rivalry in terms of quality.  In terms of historic importance, the 2013 Wimbledon final you noted and the 2016 French Open final, of course.

Nadal vs. Murray: Agree this is the weakest of the lot, but the 2010 WTF SF deserves a special mention I think. Overall, I would look at it the other way around: all non-Murray rivalries are terrific :-)

AM, San Diego

• Thanks much and your point is well taken. (Though heaven help us all if that 2012 Aussie Open final slog is the greatest hardcourt match ever played!)

Tom Dulat/Getty Images

Will Serena play the 2018 Aussie Open?
Melba Lee

• Speaking last weekend in Abu Dhabi, she sure didn’t sound optimistic. But—without making an outright prediction—it would not surprise me if she chose to give it a go. For one, she is the defending champ in Melbourne, so history is on her side. It’s not as though there’s an obvious candidate she needs to topple—think: Nadal on clay—and, truthfully, even at, say, 80%, she has a real chance. She has a finite number of opportunities to catch Margaret Court. Why waste any? This also will sound more crass than it should, but players have so much financial incentive to play majors that, short of debilitating injury, they are motivated to at least attempt to play if at all possible.

Hi Jon. I continue to enjoy your column! Question: Does Serena get a protected ranking at the Australian Open. If not, what's the rule working against her—pregnancy is not covered or she wasn't gone the required length of time or...? Thanks much.
Paul Treacy

• Thanks much. Here’s the info the WTA provided when Serena announced her pregnancy: To be eligible a player must be out for a minimum of six months, maximum of two years and ranked in Top 300 (or Top 200 in doubles) at time she stopped playing.

The Special Ranking application and supporting medical documentation must be submitted within six months after last professional tournament played. For maternity cases, players must be ready to play first tournament within 12 months of birth. The Special Ranking will be the ranking she earned immediately after the points of the last tournament she played have been added to the WTA Rankings. For Serena Williams, her Special Ranking would be No. 1.

Upon return, a player may use her WTA Special Ranking to gain entry (not for seeding) into eight tournaments within one year of her return date. The Special Ranking can be used at a maximum of two Premier Mandatory Tournaments (Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid, Beijing) and two Grand Slams. The complete details of the WTA Special Ranking Rule can be found in the 2017 WTA Rulebook (pg. 218-225).

Also worth noting: Any player who is a past singles champion of a Grand Slam or WTA Finals will be allowed an unlimited number of Singles Main Draw Wild Card nominations (pg. 67, 2017 WTA Rulebook.)

Shots, Miscellany

CG writes: Think any bag readers would be interested in a JB Davis Cup jacket? Good piece of memorabilia. If so, bids can be made here.

• Another injured player, Kei Nishikori, weighs in.

• Congrats Allen M. Hornblum whose new bio of Bill Tilden, American Colossus, publishes in March.

Tatjana Maria is one busy woman. And she’s a mother.

• This week’s LLS comes from Lucy: Andrey Rublev and English actor Paul Bettany.

Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images; Vera Anderson/WireImage

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