Just like that, the 2016 tennis season is here. And with it, all eyes will be on Serena Williams (again), but this time because she is kicking off the new year with an injury.
The world No. 1, who hasn't played since losing in the US Open semifinals four months ago, withdrew from her opening event at the Hopman Cup, citing knee inflammation.
This isn't the start Williams wanted as she looks to rebound from a shocking loss that ended her bid to capture the rare Grand Slam.
While Williams is generating the headlines, our resident tennis aficionados, Peter Bodo and Greg Garber, weigh in on all the hot topics as the countdown to the Australian Open begins.
Greg Garber: As much as I enjoyed Serena's run through the women's field a year ago, I am sensing it's time for a shift in the dynamic at the top. We saw how she was overrun by nerves in the US Open semifinals, a match she should have routinely won against Roberta Vinci. But now, health might be the overarching issue as the first major of the year approaches.
Serena pulled out of the Hopman Cup on Monday, and at this point, we don't know the extent of the injury. The fact that she made the long voyage suggests it's not too serious, but then again, Williams said health issues forced her to withdraw from the fall swing in 2015.
"I am taking a proactive step and withdrawing from tournaments in Beijing and Singapore to properly address my health and take the time to heal," Williams said in a statement at the time.
It was a vague reference, but the fact remains that this is the same knee injury that forced Williams out of her semifinal match with Simona Halep at Indian Wells back in March.
I don't know about you, Mr. Bodo, but this is not a positive sign for the WTA's best player as she looks to rebound.
Peter Bodo: Greg, Happy New Year. When it comes to 2016 and Williams, we'd all like to see more of the same old, same old -- if that's any way to describe Serena's exploits. I believe in 2016 she'll focus on two related goals: a calendar-year Grand Slam (to make up for the one that got away in 2015) and surpassing Steffi Graf as the Open era's all-time Grand Slam singles champ. (With 21 titles, Williams trails Graf by just one.)
That is, of course, assuming she can sustain season-long health. But let's face it, that's a big question mark. You've seen how knee injuries have affected Rafael Nadal, who has had multiple long stints on the disabled list. At Williams' age, she might still have a dominant game, but that's all predicated on her physical shape.
Could she make another run at the season Slam? Sure, why not? But how she recovers from this early-season setback will tell us a lot.
Williams is a superior, once-in-a-lifetime specimen, different from but comparable to Roger Federer. She's demonstrated she doesn't need to play week in, week out to be sharp. She can cherry-pick her events to help take care of her body. There's no reason why, with her resources and team, she can't get another great year out of that magnificent power game. If healthy, who's going to stop her?
Greg Garber: The Williams news puts a bit of a damper on what should be an exciting week.
By Monday, there will be no fewer than six ATP World Tour and WTA tournaments underway in five different countries -- New Zealand, China, India, Qatar and Australia, where the season's first major, the Australian Open, begins in just two weeks.
And this isn't merely a soft open -- there are six top-10 men in action and seven on the women's side. No. 1-ranked Novak Djokovic and No. 5 Nadal (Doha) and No. 3 Federer (Brisbane) headline the action. While Williams is out of action for now, Nos. 2, 3, and 4 -- Halep, Garbine Muguruza and Maria Sharapova -- are also playing in Brisbane.
We won't see Williams this week, but I am wondering how the other world No. 1, Djokovic, will fare with all the pressure that will be on him after one of the all-time great seasons on the ATP World Tour.
Peter Bodo: Djokovic has what might be called a "Serena problem." Put most simply, it is: "What do I do for an encore?"
But I'm not worried about Djokovic in that regard. He seems utterly dedicated to the game, and more than comfortable in his new role as the alpha dog of men's tennis. In fact, he seems to enjoy that role far more than most of us had anticipated back when he seemed more than happy clowning around, the third-wheel on all those Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal dates.
The real issue for the ATP men in 2016 is, "Can anyone stop this guy?" Andy Murray is coming off a dream year and up to a career-high No. 2, but Djokovic crushes him routinely (21-9, including 10 of their past 11 meetings). No. 3 Federer has been a thorn in Djokovic's side, but in five-set matches the result is never more than a flesh wound.
Wawrinka upset Djokovic in the French Open final last year and probably will spend the rest of his career paying for the impertinence. (Djokovic already leads their non-rivalry 19-4.) And Nadal presently has hands full with the likes of Fabio Fognini -- never mind Djokovic.
This may be the year that Djokovic, who at age 28 has 10 Grand Slam titles, sets himself up to make a run at Federer's record 17 majors. It's hard to envision him not winning at least two.
Greg Garber: I have no doubt Djokovic will contend for each of the four majors, beginning in Melbourne, where he has won five times in the past eight years. And at this point, it's probably safe to assume the 34-year-old Federer will be a regular at Grand Slam semifinals -- that is with the exception of the French Open, where he won't have played any tune-ups heading into the year's lone clay major.
No, my eyes are on Nadal. He turns 30 years old at the French Open (an old 30), and I'm wondering if he can pull together another major run, most likely in Paris. Can he win his 15th major and distance himself from the great Pete Sampras and edge closer to Federer's total of 17?
Peter Bodo: Nadal ended the year playing with some of the aplomb that we've come to see for years. But he showed vulnerability all year -- and not just physically. He was candid about his mental weaknesses all year. He's going to need a quick start in 2016 to regain his once unshakable confidence.
But the ATP is richer in superstars, even if Nadal fails to regain his mojo. My question: Who on the WTA will step up and show she can not only play with Williams, but perhaps be a successor? Maybe not a 21-Slam, two-wins-from-a-calendar-year Grand Slam successor, but a reliable, dedicated, focused, professional who loves what she does and has the ability to dominate most of her peers most of the time.
It's fairly amazing that the WTA has produced no such player -- not even one operating in the shadow of Williams.
Perhaps Sharapova might still become that sure-handed player, but her inconsistency and those recurring injury problems will be a lot to overcome. Simona Halep, loved as she is, shrinks into her already-small self in big matches. Kvitova has been an enigma rigged to explode unexpectedly. I could go on, but you get the point.
I see two possible solutions to the WTA's dilemma in the near term: Muguruza, who has an appropriately big game and seems to have cultivated an appetite for success, and -- potentially -- a rejuvenated Azarenka.
Greg Garber: But that's far from a guarantee. Remember three years ago around this time? Sloane Stephens got off to a tremendous start in Brisbane, knocking off No. 15 Dominika Cibulkova in the first around, reaching the quarters before losing to Serena. Stephens beat Williams, memorably, in the quarterfinals of the Aussie Open before losing to Azarenka in the semifinals. That year, Stephens went 15-4 in the Slams and, at the age of 20, looked like a force for the near future. This past year she was 5-4 in the Slams, including two first-round losses. I'm curious to see how Stephens, who turns 23 in March, fares.
Peter Bodo: The unknowns are vast, especially in this current era dominated by a handful of superstars. It seems like just yesterday that Pete Sampras, just days after his 19th birthday in 1990, won the US Open. Now, the idea of a fresh-faced, relatively unknown kid winning a Grand Slam in 2016 is downright preposterous, while the idea that a 35-year old (say, Federer) could conceivably snatch one up is anything but far-fetched.
In other words, it isn't a great time to be 18-year old Taylor Fritz (a Pete Sampras look-alike, and the ITF world junior champion in 2015) -- or, for that matter, under-21 ATP tour players such as Nick Kyrgios, Borna Coric, Hyeon Chung, Alexander Zverev, Kyle Edmund, Thanasi Kokkinakis -- and others.
Right now, it looks as if making the top 20 is about the best even the most ambitious and talented prodigy can shoot for -- at least until the next genius-grade player comes along to break the mold.
Greg Garber: Kyrgios is all of 20 years old. As a teenager, he beat Nadal at Wimbledon and reached the quarterfinals. But that stunning between-the-legs drop shot underlines the dazzling talent -- and the riddle that is the sometimes perplexing Australian. He beat Federer in Madrid and finished 36-30 overall in 2015.
Kyrgios also had the misfortune to meet Murray in three of the four Grand Slam events -- and lost them all. He's currently sitting at No. 30 in the world. Let's see if he can reign in his emotions and make the commitment to becoming a top-10 player.
Peter Bodo: Kyrgios is a good reminder, Greg, that this season will have no shortage of storylines -- whether it's Serena's drive for the Grand Slam title record, Novak's quest for that elusive French Open title, the rehabilitation of Kyrgios or the return of Vika and/or Rafa. But perhaps the most intriguing for me in 2016 will be the ongoing saga of Bouchard, who's embroiled in that lawsuit with the USTA stemming from the concussion she sustained in a fall during the US Open.
At the end of 2014, the year during which Bouchard played the Wimbledon final and two other Grand Slam semis, she seemed the second coming of Chris Evert. Now -- who knows? There was the horrific slump of 2015. The stirrings of resurgence at the US Open -- ruined by the locker room fall and concussion. The still unresolved lawsuit. All that missed on-court time. What a story. And it's about to come to life again. How about you, what player(s) are you thinking about?
Greg Garber: Under coach Lindsay Davenport -- a three-time Grand Slam champion in her own right -- Madison Keys improved from No. 31 to a year-end No. 18. But Davenport, citing family obligations, has stepped down, and Keys will now work with former ATP player Jesse Levine.
Of all the Americans, men or women, Keys at 20 seems to have the most upside; she could be a future No. 1. Last year she made the semifinals in Melbourne, the quarters at Wimbledon and the fourth round at the US Open. But will she continue to improve? I'll be watching that one closely in 2016.