In every run-up to a Grand Slam, first we get the storm, then we get the calm. For years, top players have avoided committing to a tournament the week before a major. More recently, others have been following their precautionary lead by pulling out of tune-up events at the slightest hint of injury or illness. Already in 2014, the exodus has turned into an epidemic. So far, these players have carried themselves to the sidelines: Sloane Stephens, John Isner, Laura Robson, Jerzy Janowicz, Caroline Wozniacki, Richard Gasquet, Sabine Lisicki, Janko Tipsarevic, Tommy Robredo, Nicolas Almagro, Vasek Pospisil, and Mikhail Youzhny.
Possibly, as I typed those words, three or four more players announced their withdrawals, but that’s the list I have right now. I’m guessing that most of them—with the definite exception of Tipsarevic and his bad heel—will be healthy enough for the Australian Open and its record prize-money haul. But this weeks’ warm-ups, in Sydney, Auckland, and Hobart, are a little on the thin side. Here’s a quick look at the draws, and what last-minute lessons we might learn before next Monday, when the Aussie Open officially begins.
Apia International (WTA)
$710,000; WTA Premier
Draw is here
The WTA’s Big 4 are at rest this week, but the second tier has moved in to pick up the slack. World No. 5 Agnieszka Radwanska, No. 6 Petra Kvitova, No. 7 Sara Errani, No. 8 Jelena Jankovic, No. 9 Angelique Kerber, and No. 10 Caroline Wozniacki were the event’s six seeded players. Jankovic has already lost, to Ekaterina Makaraova, and Wozniacki is complaining about a sore shoulder, but the rest are alive and hopefully ready for the summer heat.
Radwanska, the defending champion, could have a tough opener against Bethanie Mattek-Sands, who straight-setted Eugenie Bouchard in the first round—so much for my Young Woman to Watch in 2014 so far. After that, Aga will play the winner of a match between two young prospects, Madison Keys of the U.S., and Ajla Tomljanovic of Croatia. The second-seeded Kvitova begins against Christina McHale, who beat her two years ago in Indian Wells and may be on an upswing again after rejoining the USTA late last year.
Good win for an American: Varvara Lepchenko over Svetlana Kuznetsova, 7-5 in the third.
Quick loss for an American: Qualifier Victoria Duval, to Kaia Kanepi, 6-1, 6-3.
Apia International (ATP)
$452,670; 250 ranking points
Draw is here
As with the women, the ATP's Big 4 have moved on to Melbourne, which leaves Big No. 5, Juan Martin del Potro, alone at the top of the draw in Sydney. The Argentine is ranked as high as he has ever been, is coming off perhaps his best overall season, and at age 25 should be entering his prime. He’ll start his high-stakes 2014 by playing either Nicolas Mahut or Ryan Harrison. Which means that Harrison will begin his new year the way he spent much of the old one: With a bad draw.
Jerzy Janowicz is the top name on the other side. Like del Potro, the 22-year-old comes into 2014 with high expectations—i.e., is he the future of the men's game? But Janowicz has already succumbed to another troubling trend for him—injuries—by pulling out of the Hopman Cup with a foot problem. He’s still in the Sydney draw, and will start with the winner between Alexandr Dolgopolov and Edouard Roger-Vasselin.
Also here: Defending champion Bernard Tomic
Possible first-round match to watch: Sam Querrey vs. Vasek Pospisil
All-star first-name first-rounder: Blaz Kavcic vs. Jarkko Nieminen. Get ready for Blazarkko.
$250,000; WTA International
Draw is here
Sam Stosur, perhaps trying to avoid the glare of the Aussie spotlight for as long as possible, is the top seed in this smaller-town tune-up event in Oz. The glare still almost got to her in the first round, where she snuck past Madison Brengle, 7-5 in a third-set tiebreaker. Sam will face another challenge, against Kristina Mladenovic, next.
Other surviving seeds: No. 2 Kirsten Flipkens, No. 3 Elena Vesnina, No. 6 Mona Barthel, No. 7 Klara Zakopalova, No. 8 Bojana Jovanovski
Notable result: Alison Riske d. Anastasia Pavluchenkova 6-3, 6-2
Best-named Aussie wild card: Storm Sanders
Auckland, New Zealand
$455,190; 250 ranking points
Draw is here
Talk about a home away from home. David Ferrer is the top-ranked player in Auckland, but even if Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic were in town, you still might have to make Ferru the favorite. He has won this event the last three years, and four times overall.
Ferrer could use some home cooking. He ran out of gas at the end of 2013, and didn’t look like he had refueled much last week in Doha, where he went out early to Daniel Brands. Ferrer will face a lefty to start in Auckland, either Federico Delbonis or the possibly back-from-the-dead-yet-again Donald Young, who qualified for this tournament.
Also here, for now: John Isner
First-round match to watch: Tommy Haas will kick off season No. 18 on tour against Jack Sock, who recently kicked off season No. 21...on earth.