Many dreams will die and some live

Someone will twist an ankle, fall to the heat, double fault at match point, be rude to an opponent, hit a shot we promise ourselves cannot exist. Eventually 127 dreams will die and one live, and the history book on the year will have its first inscriptions, writes ROHIT BRIJNATH.

IN Perth, in Chennai, in Doha, in Adelaide, in Hong Kong, it has begun. The tennis year and the dreaming. Most of everything is old, especially the names, yet so much is new. Rackets are being examined, recently hired coaches tried, footwear broken in, newly-minted resolve tested. The short winter of solitude is over and it is time to seek applause again. On the 17th, the Australian Open commences and for 11 months there will be little time to breathe. Some careers will die this year but no one will believe it will be theirs.

Even Federer, the defending champion, looks to Tony Roche for part-time help, though on quick scrutiny he needs little assistance except possibly to milk his cow.-- Pic. AFP-

Change we cannot see completely yet, but it is there. At best we might recognise an exaggerated confidence to Rafael Nadal's walk after his spectacular Davis Cup, or note the enhanced bicep that stands out in the model structure of Miss Sharapova. But mostly change is subtle, almost delicate, and it is viewed most clearly not from the stand or drawing room but with a squint-eyed look from across the net.

Is there a faster whip to Ferrero's forehand, is Safin staying just one shot longer in the rally than he did last year, and, dammit, will Agassi ever get old?

This gauging of change is often beyond the ordinary eye of the spectator, but the great player is alive to it, he senses immediately the faint acceleration of a stroke or the sly alteration of a familiar tactic. If Roddick's backhand is as clean down the line as his cross court, if Kuznetsova's serve has a more decisive snap to it, if Moya is less shy of the net on a big point, it will register. Then it must be countered.

New strategies for old foes will be invented, old tricks used against fresh faces, but for all the fine additions made to the arsenal mostly they will polish familiar weapons like a dutiful silversmith. In the sun or cold, holidays are few, as players hone serves, sandpaper forehands, shine backhands, buff up footwork, burnish volleys, till they can see their brilliant reflections in their glistening talent. Even Federer looks to Tony Roche for part-time help, though on quick scrutiny he needs little assistance except possibly to milk his cow.

Tired bodies stop briefly to replenish themselves and then muscles are awoken, sinews stretched, lungs inflated, iron lifted, ropes skipped, stomachs crunched, again and again, for this is not just for January but September and so the pain has purpose. The many mutinies of the bodies must be quelled for months lie ahead of running on hard courts and sitting on aeroplane seats. Every year it is harder to be older but feel younger. Already Serena's abdomen is continuing to complain, so too Mauremo's, Davenport is being bullied by age and Phillipoussis by a groin injury, and the lovely Clijsters is already defeated, sitting at home with aching wrist and wounded heart.

It is sweaty, endless work but such sculpting of body and tuning of game is still easier than the adjusting of mind. A drop shot can be found, but determination is beyond some coaching; the wrist can be bent but what about unbending will?

Coaches will talk, and fathers and mothers have their say, faith healers might be visited and veterans consulted, appointments made with mind gurus and self-help sections of the bookshop browsed, but even Safin knows that no man can hold his hand on court and the only voice whispering in his ear at changeovers will be his own. There is a nakedness about sport that makes it at once terrifying and beautiful.

In the men's locker room, the new alliances will be scrutinised, the strut of opponents examined, the enhanced width of shoulders measured, and the name of Federer spoken as if in a church. All will wonder, perhaps even the Swiss, when he will succumb; it has to happen, some time, eventually, but how we cannot say. Of course he is mortal but some confirmation would not hurt.

No one is neutral about this Swiss and it will have been a winter of plotting Federer's demise. Perhaps his form will dip, even fractionally, and he will come back to the pack but it is a fragile hope, one born of prayer instead of practice. After all, success lies not in his hiccup but in his peers' improvement. So Agassi will look to his legs and staying strong when it counts, and Roddick may modify his backhand and tweak his volley, and Hewitt search hard for that perfect mesh of consistency and aggressiveness, and Safin find a way to dispense his gifts with steadiness.

Will last year's runner-up Marat Safin live up to his full potential this year at Melbourne Park? — Pic. SEAN GARNSWORTHY/GETTY IMAGES-

Luck must fall their way, through a line call, a helpful draw, shorter matches, perfect health, but all will believe in their invincibility. They have to, for to doubt is to lose before a ball has been struck. Federer they have all beaten before and why not again? It is the question of the year.

No woman holds such supremacy and there is much to be gained from an early statement. The Williams sisters is a dead phrase, for Venus is no Serena, and indeed Serena is not herself either. Both must resurrect reputations, and the opportunity exists for in sheer roundness of talent no Russian has their measure except marvellous Maria.

Davenport will hopefully be there too, all quiet wisdom in the interview room and driving strokes on court, and it says something about us that this woman of immense grace and fine talents merits less recognition possibly only because she does not walk a catwalk in her free time.

As a collective, players have looked to find a way to assist victims of the tsunami disaster, yet on court they will strive to be heartless. They will smile thinly at opponents like a butcher does at meat he is readying to carve, sulk at umpires, look beseechingly at parents and occasionally rebuke a coach from the centre of the court. Drama will come and go like a hot wind.

Someone will twist an ankle, fall to the heat, double fault at match point, be rude to an opponent, hit a shot we promise ourselves cannot exist. Eventually 127 dreams will die and one live, and the history book on the year will have its first inscriptions. It is the centenary of the Australian Open but it is still only a beginning.