The Australian Open kicks off Monday with Roger Federer, the Swiss prodigy, poised to begin a run at one of tennis' enduring dreams -- the Grand Slam.
If Federer wins here and follows with victories at the French Open (May-June), Wimbledon (June-July), and the U.S. Open (August-September), he will become the first men's player to win the world's four major championships in a single year since 1969. Steffi Graf was the last woman to win all four in a year, in 1988.
Last year, Federer won all but the French Open to come within a proverbial whisker of the dream. Or was it a feather?
In the days leading up to the opening round, hundreds of international tennis fans flocked to spacious Melbourne Park, where the 100th Australian Open is being staged.
Like birdwatchers, they traded word of flyovers, comparing notes of wing spans and trying to assess plumage to determine who is in good form and who is not.
What follows is a personal log of sightings:
Maria Sharapova: The 17-year-old Russian who startled the tennis world by winning 2004 Wimbledon, slashed forehand service returns with a hitting partner in a closed practice on the Rod Laver Arena court. Sharapova looked impossibly lean -- and determined.
Svetlana Kuznetsova: The surprise winner of the 2004 U.S. Open sprinted, lunged and pirouetted on an outside court -- without a tennis racquet.
Under the watchful gaze of her coach, Kuznetsova puffed and gasped in a heart-pounding drill: A young assistant stood at the service line, a ball in each outstretched hand. Kuznetsova watched as the ball dropped. In split seconds, she would race to catch it before it bounced a second time. She is not lean -- but very fast and close to being fully fit.
Amelie Mauresmo: France's leading player, and the world's second-ranked player, danced alone -- or as alone as a ballerina could be across the net from her hitting partner. Stationed on an outside court enclosed by high grandstands, Mauresmo's ballet was visible only from above. I aimed my camera downward from a walkway encircling the Laver arena and captured glimpses of her leaping forehands. The dominant impression, as only the French could say it, was puissance, or power.
Andre Agassi: The intrepid competitor from Las Vegas walked in quick steps between points in an unannounced morning workout in Rod Laver Arena. Shirtless in Melbourne's summer sunshine, Agassi looked astonishingly powerful -- from the back. His rows of muscles, usually hidden under a Nike tennis shirt, represent a kind of secret weapon. At 5 feet 11 inches, noted a security officer, Agassi does not impose his presence on a spectator -- until he turns his back. Agassi has won this championship four times and, until his reported hip injury in this past week's Kooyong Classic, looked capable of capturing a fifth title.
Tim Henman, David Nalbandian and Gaston Gaudio: Three eagles observed in shirtless practice stints on outside courts:
Henman, of Great Britain, scrawny by Agassi standards, seemed forever cool and comfortable, stroking for photographers, chatting amiably with a tournament worker, then rushing off to play an exhibition at Kooyong, the private club where the tournament was played before moving here in 1988. Henman reached the 2004 French Open semifinals and has gracefully positioned himself for another run down under.
Argentina's Nalbandian and Gaudio are topspin clay court specialists whose muscles seem to muffle the power of their strokes. In a brief workout, they smiled and occasionally shouted encouragement in a brisk workout on an outside court. Working with two coaches, they rotated serving and stroking, their topspin shots largely blunted by Rebound Ace, the surface employed here in Melbourne. While neither player seems to have much of a chance to win the championship, they both look fit and ready to compete.