If it's January it must be the Open

ROHIT BRIJNATH

January means taking a walk by Melbourne Park and wondering which inebriated sculptor chiselled the statue of Rod Laver that stands there in all its ugliness. January means cold cream and colder beer, Swedish fans with painted faces cheering for Swedish players with colourless games. January means the slither of running feet, the soul-ripped cry of a forehand missed at set point, and a city alive to the musical thwack of a well-struck tennis ball.

January means the Australian Open. The year has awoken and so has tennis.

Papa Pete is not coming and neither is Hesitant Henman. Rusedski the Rude is a no-show and the Handsome Haas with the no-sleeves is out too. Hingis of the Hissing strokes is still on the mend and the Marauding Mauresmo will not be seen either. It is sad but tennis, like life, moves on; everyone is missed only till the first ball is hit.

The off-season is done and the alarm rings quicker. Days on the beach seem a distant memory amidst the clank of iron in the gym. Softly-spoken girlfriends are replaced by hard-talking coaches, sweat drips from the head like a tap that will not close, a hundred forehands are hit and then a hundred more, and everyone sleeps with a prayer that injury will not come visiting.

Fresh rackets are unwrapped from cellophane, new shoes gingerly tested, and clothing pulled on that appears designed for a non-human extra in The Two Towers. Serena Williams has moved from pink to orange (with matching shoes, of course), Nike has Lleyton Hewitt looking like half-man, half-zebra, and early reports indicate that Danielle has the edge over Anna in the Battle of the Beautiful Ova's (Hantuchova vs Kournikova, in case you didn't get it). New service actions and leaner torsos are unveiled, everyone with a Spanish passport remains a respectful distance from the net, and a Chilean magician not called Rios is determined to crack the Top 10. Fernando Gonzales ended 2001 as No.135, but finished 2002 as No.17, and people still don't know who he is!!! Players fan out across the globe, to Chennai, to Doha, to various towns and cities across Australia, to stretch their stiff legs and brush the faint winter cobwebs from their games. Hewitt plucks animatedly at his strings much like Yo Yo Ma does his cello; Federer cracks his fingers like Mozart might have before a performance. This is an orchestra fine-tuning itself, readying to gather in Melbourne on January 13 to compose some inspired music.

Old faces have returned with new dreams. Safin wants to forget 2002, and perhaps if he gives Hewitt lessons on the serve he will receive tutorials on discipline. Moya's spirited form last year suggests he remains admiral of the Spanish Armada, though Costa with a French Open under his belt might choose to argue the case. Duels at 40 paces will occur daily.

Hewitt will acknowledge in press conferences that he should come to the net more often but will privately wonder what for — he wins so easily. His face is losing its petulance and he carries with him now the assurance of a man who knows that he does what he does better than any man living.

The jaded father of Jaden will attempt to dispute that point, but Agassi is in gentle decline, lacking the ferocity his wife once made famous. His strokes are still kissed by genius but it is concentration that fails him. Still, the indifferent quality of most of the top 10 means he is in with a chance.

New faces will be keen to announce themselves, and some will do so more politely than others. Paradorn Srichaphan, the very picture of the warrior monk, will bow to the crowd after every match but there is nothing respectful in what he has been doing to his better-ranked opponents. The hottest Thai export since their famed curries, he will be insistent on proving that he is no one-year fluke, that he is as nerveless as he is graceful. Everywhere there are young men waiting impatiently on the cusp of greatness. Paul Henri Matheiu is a French musketeer of many gifts, James Blake has charm to go with his ambition, Mikhail Youzny is a Davis Cup hero and Andy Roddick's winning smile is a reminder to demanding cynics that he is only 20 years old.

The women will make more news than the men (so what is new) and most if it will contain the word Williams. Is Serena stronger, is Venus frustrated, is Richard coming, and what does Capriati think about it all?

The Belgian Mafia might have some answers. Clijsters has the relentless quality of a bullying boxer while Henin plays with the grace of an epee artist; one pummels, the other cuts, but both are ready for their first Grand Slam title. Maybe Serena will go shopping on final day?

Most things will be the same. We will shake our heads in disbelief as players invent angles that would leave a geometrician blushing, and then shake it again when they have the whole court to put the ball in but prefer to dump it in the net. We will watch players slice apart opponents 6-1, 6-0, 6-1 with true genius and then lie brilliantly in the interview room when they say ''the match was closer than you think.''

We will see tempers rise with the temperature, a TV crew flirt with frying an egg on court, umpires wince at calling a match featuring Lina Krasnoroutskaya and Iroda Tulyaganova, and a young player appal us by saying that this Margaret Court, the one after whom Court No.1 is named, well, who was she?

It is time now, the courts are calling. Coaches will whisper a final word of advice, parents will press hands in encouragement, strings will be checked, ponytails tied, trembling fingers thrust into pockets and nervousness will swim down the throat. Under centre court, in the belly of the stadium, players will be called, and they will heft heavy bags on to their non-playing shoulders, adjust their caps before the mirror and begin the long walk through bustling corridors and staring crowds on to the court.

The umpires will announce their names and then quiet will momentarily descend. The server will bounce the ball and then look to the receiver, and both will know this. It is too late for practice and too late for prayer. It is every man for himself.