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Jelena Ostapenko, who beat Serena Williams in an exhibition match in Abu Dhabi, could face Simona Halep in Shenzhen, in a rematch of the French Open final. (AP)

Maybe six months isn’t enough, after all.

When Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Kei Nishikori and Stan Wawrinka pulled the plugs on their respective 2017 seasons roughly midway through the year, the theory was that they were following Roger Federer’s new and seemingly foolproof system of injury management. Federer had taken the second half of 2016 off to heal his surgically repaired left knee; fully healthy to start 2017, he began it by winning his first major title in five years at the Australian Open.

But a bounce-back of that speed and magnitude in 2018 is looking less and less likely for most of Federer’s rivals. Djokovic pulled out of a season-opening exhibition in Abu Dhabi, and then a season-opening tournament in Doha; Nishikori pulled out of his first scheduled event, in Brisbane; and Murray got off to a slow start when he filled in for Djokovic. Throw in Rafael Nadal’s own withdrawal from Brisbane because of his still-creaky knees and the men’s game looks set to get off to a staggered start, at best, this season. The much-hoped-for blockbuster reunion of the Big 5 in 2018 may take a while to come together.

A similar scenario appears to be playing out on the women’s side. While last year’s top finishers—Simona Halep, Garbiñe Muguruza, Caroline Wozniacki and Karolina Pliskova, as well as Maria Sharapova—are all in action this week, there are still questions about when the two most highly-anticipated returnees, Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka, will play their first tour matches. Serena is coming back after having her first child, and Azarenka is in a custody fight for hers.

Whether the sport’s stars are ready or not, the opening week of the 2018 season is upon us, with six tournaments this week—it’s the start of a hurried, harried 15-day lead-up to the Aussie Open. Here’s a look at what we can expect. The 2017 season ended less than two months ago, but somehow it feels like we’re starting fresh again.

*****

Will there be a first-time women's Grand Slam champion in 2018?

Brisbane International (WTA)

Brisbane, Australia
$894,700; Premier
Plexicushion
Draw is here

Despite the absence of Serena and Azarenka, who have each won this tournament twice, the 30-player Brisbane’s women’s field may be the strongest at any of the season-opening events. The WTA’s No. 2 and No. 4, Muguruza and Pliskova, are the top seeds, followed by two of their fellow Top Tenners, Elina Svitolina and Johanna Konta, as well as one who could be on her way back there in 2018, Petra Kvitova.

Story lines abound Down Under, starting with the defending champion, Pliskova. She’ll come in with higher hopes than ever in 2018, after reaching No. 1 last season and regrouping at the end of the year to make the semifinals at the WTA Finals. Konta also began last season red hot, but fizzled down the stretch and lost in the first round at her last four events. Can the Aussie-turned-Brit regain her momentum in time to make another deep run in Melbourne, where she’s 9-2 for her career? And then there’s Kvitova. After being forced to the sidelines for the first half of 2017, she should be as hungry as anyone to get going, and get winning, in 2018.

Also here: Ash Barty, Anastasija Sevastova, Daria Kasatkina, Kiki Mladenovic, CiCi Bellis and 2017 Australian Open semifinalist Mirjana Lucic-Baroni

First-round matches to watch: Konta vs. Madison Keys; Svitolina vs. Carla Suarez Navarro

Already out: Caroline Garcia. Will the fastest finisher of 2017 pay the price in the new year, the way Andy Murray did on the men’s side 12 months ago? Garcia had to retire during her opening round in Brisbane due to a back problem.

*****

Brisbane International (ATP)

Brisbane, Australia
$528,910; 250 ranking points
Plexicushion
Draw is here

New year, new man: Grigor Dimitrov, champion at the ATP’s season-ending event in London, is the top seed in Brisbane, while Murray is No. 2. At 26, Dimitrov should be entering his prime, and he’s coming off his best season. Is this, finally, the year when he makes good on his considerable promise and joins the game’s uppermost echelon? We’ll get our first hint when he faces either Peter Polansky or John Millman in his opening match. Considering that Dimitrov finished 2017 at a career-high No. 3, he’ll have to begin by getting used to being seeded first at many of the events he plays. In Brisbane, he’s scheduled to face home-country favorite Nick Kyrgios in the semifinals.

In the other half, Murray will be testing to see where his body is when he faces either Ryan Harrison or Leonardo Mayer in his first match. Murray injured his hip last year, hasn’t played since Wimbledon and is ranked No. 16. He’s also 30 years old; can this five-time Australian Open runner-up bounce back as quickly and thoroughly as he once did? He’s slated to meet Milos Raonic in the semifinals.

First-round matches to watch: Denis Shapovalov vs. Kyle Edmund; Jared Donaldson vs. Jordan Thompson: They aren’t the U.S. and Australia’s top prospects, exactly, but they are the scrappiest.

*****

Will there be a first-time men's Grand Slam champion in 2018?

Shenzhen Open (WTA)

Shenzhen, China
$626,750; International
Hard court
Draw is here

Shenzhen has been good to Halep. In 2015, she won the tournament and went on to reach the Australian Open quarterfinals. Last year wasn't as fruitful; she lost in the round of 16. Still, by year's end, the Romanian would finish at No. 1 in the world. 

Halep’s big goal for this year, of course, is to win her first major. Her campaign will open against Nicole Gibbs, and her draw to the final in Shenzhen theoretically looks like smooth sailing—the second-highest seed in Halep’s half is her countrywoman and doubles partner Irina-Camelia Begu.

If Halep does make the final, she may find herself across the net from a woman who beat her in a major in 2017. The two highest-profile players in Shenzhen’s bottom half are Sharapova and Jelena Ostapenko. The Russian and the Latvian have never faced each other; there would be worse ways to start 2018 than to see a semifinal between them.

*****

Qatar ExxonMobil Open (ATP)

Doha, Qatar
$1,286,675; 250 points
Hard court
Draw is here

Was it just 12 months ago that Djokovic and Murray, the two best players in the world, faced off in a three-set Doha final that most of us believed would set the stage for the year to come? Things obviously changed quickly and drastically on the men’s side in 2017. One year later, things have changed drastically for Doha as well. Despite being the most lucrative tournament of the week, its field doesn’t include Djokovic or Murray or three-time champion Federer.

Can you guess who it does include? That’s right, Dominic Thiem. The ATP’s most-overworked horse is the top seed in a veteran-heavy draw that includes Tomas Berdych, Pablo Carreño Busta, Gael Monfils, Richard Gasquet, Feliciano Lopez, Fernando Verdasco and Russian up-and-comer Andrey Rublev

*****

Will Roger Federer win his 20th Grand Slam title in 2018?

ASB Classic (WTA)

Auckland, New Zealand
$226,750; International
Plexicushion
Draw is here

You didn’t think Caroline Wozniacki was going to take the first week of the year off, did you? The WTA’s No. 3 has opted for the smallest tournament of the three, in Auckland, where she’s the top seed. Wozniacki may also be the most intriguing women’s story line to start 2018, this side of Serena and her comeback. Wozniacki finished last year on the highest of high notes, with a flawless run through Singapore for her first WTA Finals title. We wondered then if she would take any lessons from that win, and the newfound aggression she used to earn it. I wouldn’t expect any radical revamps from the 27-year-old, but we can always hope.

The Auckland draw should give Wozniacki a chance to, at the very least, win a few matches and work her way into the season. The seeds just behind her are No. 2 Julia Goerges, No. 3 Barbora Strycova and No. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska, who will be trying to reverse her steep 2017 decline.

First-round match for U.S. fans to watch: Christina McHale vs. Taylor Townsend

*****

Tata Open Maharashtra (ATP)

Pune, India
$501,305; 250 ranking points
Hard court
Draw is here

The ATP has traditionally begun with a tournament in Chennai, India; this year the men move to Pune. But another tradition does continue: Marin Cilic, a longtime entrant and two-time Chennai champion, is the top seed. No. 2 is US Open finalist Kevin Anderson; No. 3 is defending Chennai champ Roberto Bautista-Agut.


JANUARY: THIS MONTH ON TENNIS CHANNEL PLUS

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Starting with January …  gear up for the Australian Open with 6 LIVE tournaments in the lead up to AO, exclusively on Tennis Channel Plus

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