January 4, 2012

Here We Go, Again!

Well it sure is good to be back, huh? It seems like ages since we last saw some of the sport's big stars -- in some cases it has been ages -- but as players make their way in the general direction of the year's first Grand Slam, it looks as though they didn't miss a beat.

In Chennai, slightly removed from the most immediate action, Janko Tipsarevic looks to capitalize on the momentum that brought him two titles at the end of 2011 and a first trip to the year-end finals in London. He's the top seed and opens Thursday against Indian wildcard Yuki Bhambri, and will want to make a statement quickly to prove his recent good fortune was more than just luck.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Nicolas Almagro -- he'll want to turn around his current streak, one which brought him just a single match win since the U.S. Open. Barely holding on to the #10 ranking, the Spaniard needs to grab some points quickly to keep his spot among the elite. And Milos Raonic, one of the biggest standouts of last year, struggled a bit after an injury he sustained at Wimbledon blunted the back half of his year. If he's in form, he should far out-perform his fourth seed here.

The ladies traveled a little closer to their ultimate destination. Sabine Lisicki, 2011's comeback of the year, takes the top seed in Auckland -- impressive, considering she had to qualify here last year. With many of her contemporaries being upset early, this warm-up might just be hers to lose.

But all obstacles haven't been eliminated quite yet. Flavia Pennetta may not have re-reached her highest ranking, but she ended the year with wins over Maria Sharapova and Caroline Wozniacki. She had solid wins in her first two rounds in New Zealand, and if she can get past Elena Vesnina in the quarters -- a woman she has traded wins with for the last six years -- she could have to confidence to go even farther.

It's been a little tougher for the top names in Brisbane. Despite ending 2011 with three straight titles, Andy Murray has struggled through two three-set matches in Australia, U.S. Open champ Sam Stosur was ousted by world #54 Iveta Benesova in straight sets, and Serena Williams, just outside the top-ten, withdrew after her second round match with an ankle sprain.

Maybe the troubles of others will bode well for those trying to get their games back on track. Alexandr Dolgopolov is at his highest career ranking, thanks to a breakout last year in Melbourne and his first title in Umag, but he won just one match in his last four of 2011, so he'll need to put up some good numbers here. He survived a close call Wednesday, so he'll have to up his game next if he's going to stay alive.

And former #1 Jelena Jankovic is coming off her first title-less year since 2006. She had some flashes of brilliance last year -- a defeat of Stosur in Dubai and runs to the finals in Monterrey and Cincinnati -- but also saw her ranking drop into the double digits, the lowest in five years. She's been solid so far in Brisbane, but hasn't faced too formidable a foe yet -- if she can bring her A-game against Francesca Schiavone on Thursday, she could turn her streak around.

The start of the year can be such a question mark -- will players lose their momentum or reignite a spark that had been dwindling? So far it's been a bit of a mixed picture, but there's a whole lot of play left this year. And a couple good shots hit the rest of this week could really get these players off on the right foot.

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