Is anyone out there in ESPNland still awake? Before we dive into bed to catch up on two weeks' worth of sleep, let's look at five big takeaways from the just-completed Australian Open:
1. In the WTA, it's all about who finishes second. This was a critical major for the women, for one reason: Had Serena Williams lost to either Justine Henin or Kim Clijsters, it would have cast doubt on the roughly two-year period during which those Belgian stars were absent.
The message would have been that Williams, who has the kind of game and personality with which you can find fault (if that's what you're looking to do), was just keeping the throne warm for a continued reign by Henin or a continuation of Clijsters' development as a dominant player -- a mission she abandoned in the spring of 2007 after getting to at least the semifinals at five majors, including the first one she won, the 2005 U.S. Open.
By beating Henin in the final, Williams established the fact that the best player has always been present and accounted for -- and that the titles she won during the Belgians' holiday were legitimate. Henin might yet put together another amazing year like the one she enjoyed in 2007, and Clijsters still has time to dominate the game for a good few years. But Williams is still at the head of the class.
2. The Australian Open is no longer the stomping grounds for "surprise" finalists or semifinalists. It wasn't so long ago that you could expect a Rainer Schuettler, an Arnaud Clement or a Thomas Johansson to figure in the finals action; a fit, opportunistic guy could do some real damage before the top players rubbed the offseason out of their eyes.
And that was an improvement over previous years, when you couldn't even bank on some top players making the trip Down Under. But it's different now; the guys who are supposed to get to the late stages keep their appointments. Everyone now starts the year in fighting trim.
3. Watch out for those floaters, ladies. The depth of the WTA game continues to improve, and no player who hasn't won at least one major (and some who have) is safe at any stage after the first or second round. Dinara Safina (she gets a partial pass because of her back injury), Jelena Jankovic, Caroline Wozniacki and Ana Ivanovic -- all established stars at the beginning of this year -- have to watch their backs. Victoria Azarenka, Vera Zvonareva, Yanina Wickmayer, Nadia Petrova, maybe even Flavia Pennetta and Maria Kirilenko all have out the long knives. And, oh, what about the two talented Chinese players, Li Na and Zheng Jie? The pecking order in the women's game has never been less stable in that Nos. 3 or 4 through No. 10 category.
4. Rafael Nadal is in trouble. At the risk of sounding flip, there's a serious risk Nadal has lost his mojo -- or at least suffered its diminishment due to his ongoing injury issues. Each week the guy isn't out playing and contending at tournaments takes a little away from his aura -- a glow generated by his ironman stamina and, more importantly, by the way being on a roll event after event now seems to have been so critical to his success as well as his mystique. Nadal's physical problems are bad enough; the mental struggles they forecast also are cause for concern. The best chance Rafa has to turn it around would seem to be a healthy, renewed assault on the European clay-court circuit, picking up where he left off in the spring of 2009, pre-Madrid.
5. Roger Federer is going to be Serena Williams in 2010, and I don't mean he's going to show up at the player party in Miami with his legs bandaged and wearing giant hoop earrings.
In 2009, Williams won three tournaments: the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the season-ending WTA championships. In Melbourne, Federer showed us those recent losses in Basel, London and Doha meant absolutely nothing. His terrific performance at the Australian Open has to convince him that he doesn't need to sweat the small stuff anymore. Showing up for the big events, like Williams does, isn't just possible -- it's the best way for him to extend his already-unsurpassed career.