These are the sunset days of the 2017 tennis calendar but a new year sunrise is fast approaching – with some exhibition matches starting in 16 days.

The picture here features (from left to right) Lucas Pouille, Nicolas Mahut, David Goffin and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and their wives and girlfriends vacationing on the beach in the Maldives last week.

Every year the Australian Open comes quickly into focus with players basically just having two weeks of competition to gear-up, fine-tune and be ready for the rigours of the first Grand Slam.

Here’s a look at the plans of the top men and women, and all the Canadians, as they build toward the biggie at Melbourne Park.

Two of the marquee names – Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic – are slated to play the grandly-named Mubadala World Tennis Championship from December 28-30 in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. They’re seeded No. 1 and No. 2 with four other players set to feed into the semifinals – the winner of Stan Wawrinka and Pablo Carreno Busta faces Nadal while Milos Raonic and Dominic Thiem meet for a spot in the final four opposite Djokovic. Currently ranked No. 12, the Serb will be playing for the first time since Wimbledon.

Below are the Big Four of men’s tennis and their pre-Australian Open schedules. This year’s AO runs from January 15-28.

RAFAEL NADAL: After Abu Dhabi, the world No. 1 moves on to Brisbane to play the ATP 250 where he’s the top seed in a field that includes Grigor Dimitrov, Andy Murray, Nick Kyrgios, Kei Nishikori and Raonic.

ROGER FEDERER: As he did last year, Federer will play the Hopman Cup mixed team competition in Perth alongside compatriot Belinda Bencic. The Swiss pair start on Saturday December 30 versus Japan (Yuichi Sugita and Naomi Osaka). A year ago in Hopman Cup, returning from a six-month layoff, Federer gave a hint of what was to come at the Australian Open when he played a high-quality thriller against Sascha Zverev – losing 7-6(1), 6-7(4), 7-6(4) in two and a half hours.

NOVAK DJOKOVIC: With coaches Andre Agassi and Radek Stepanek offering counsel, the six-time Aussie Open champ will follow the Abu Dhabi exo with the ATP 250 in Doha, Qatar, where he will be seeded third behind Thiem and Carreno Busta. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is also in the field.

ANDY MURRAY: Like Djokovic, the 30-year-old Scot is returning to action for the first time since Wimbledon. Now ranked No. 16, Murray is in the Brisbane field with Nadal, Dimitrov, Kyrgios, Nishikori and Raonic.

None of Nadal, Federer, Djokovic or Murray is slated for the ATP 250 events in Auckland and Sydney, or the Kooyong Classic exhibition in Melbourne, the week before the Aussie Open. So that appears to be a practice week for all four.

The women’s Big Four is not nearly as well-defined as the men’s – but for preview purposes here we’ll go with this quartet:

SIMONA HALEP: The world No. 1 is scheduled for just one tournament (two weeks) before the Australian Open – the International Series event in Shenzhen, China. It has a relatively weak field that includes Jelena Ostapenko, Zhang Shuai, Irina-Camelia Begu and…Maria Sharapova.

GARBIÑE MUGURUZA: The ITF choice as World Champion for 2017, the 24-year-old Spaniard is top seed at the Premier event in Brisbane also featuring top-tenners Karolina Pliskova, Elina Svitolina, Caroline Garcia and Johanna Konta as well as Sloane Stephens, Madison Keys and Petra Kvitova.

VENUS WILLIAMS: The 37-year-old world No. 5 will head the field at the Sydney International, a Premier tournament the week before the Aussie Open. It will be her first appearance at the 2000 Olympic tennis site since 2001 when she and sister Serena lost a first-round doubles match (after having four match points) to Martina Hingis and Monica Seles. Also in the Sydney field are Ostapenko, Konta, Stephens, Angelique Kerber and Kvitova.

MARIA SHARAPOVA: Ranked No. 60 after making her return from a 15-month suspension last April, the 30-year-old Russian has just one event planned – the Shenzhen tournament two weeks before the Aussie Open. Her only Australian Open title came a full 10 years ago in 2008.

Note: There’s some doubt about defending champion Serena Williams playing the 2018 Aussie Open, and she has no plans for pre-tournament events. Otherwise this would be a Big Five with her clearly at the very top of the list.

The Canadians

MILOS RAONIC: The current world No. 24 plays Thiem at the Abu Dhabi exo and then possibly two more matches before moving on to Brisbane where he won in 2016 and was a semifinalist a year ago. He’s not signed up to play the week before the Aussie Open, where he has personal best Grand Slam record of 23-7.

DENIS SHAPOVALOV: The promising 18-year-old will play his third career Grand Slam at the 2018 Aussie Open after reaching the round-of-16 at the US Open in September. Leading into Melbourne the No. 51-ranked Shapovalov is playing ATP 250 tournaments in Brisbane and Auckland.

VASEK POSPISIL: The world No. 109 is teaming with Genie Bouchard at the Hopman Cup the first week of 2018 and their opening match-up is against Australia (Thanasi Kokkinakis and Daria Gavrilova) on Sunday December 31st.

Pospisil, 10 spots out of direct entry into the Aussie Open main draw, will be playing the qualifying in Melbourne.

Grand Slam qualifying record: 8-4 – qualified two of six attempts.

PETER POLANSKY:  Now ranked No. 139, he will either play the qualifying for the ATP 250 in Doha, Qatar, or the $75,000 Playford (Adelaide, Australia) Challenger two weeks before the Aussie Open.

Then he will be in the qualifying at Melbourne Park.

Grand Slam qualifying record: 38-26 – qualified five of 31 attempts.

FELIX AUGER-ALIASSIME: The 17-year-old Montrealer, ranked No. 162, will play the Playford (Adelaide) Challenger and then the Aussie Open qualifying.

Grand Slam qualifying record: 1-1 – zero qualified in one attempt.

FILIP PELIWO: The 23-year-old, ranked No. 184, will play the Brisbane ATP qualifying or the Playford (Adelaide) Challenger before the Aussie Open qualifying.

Grand Slam qualifying record: 1-2 – zero qualified in two attempts.

BRAYDEN SCHNUR: The 22-year-old, ranked No. 195, will play either the Brisbane ATP 250 qualifying or the Playford (Adelaide) Challenger and then the qualifying at Melbourne Park.

Grand Slam qualifying record: 0-1 – zero qualified in one attempt.

GENIE BOUCHARD: The No. 82-ranked Bouchard will spend the first week of the new tennis year in Perth playing Hopman Cup for the third time – with her Canada has previously finished with 2-1 win/loss records in 2013 (Raonic) and 2014 (Pospisil). She will team up with Pospisil again in 2018 and they will begin against Aussies Gavrilova and Kokkinakis on New Year’s Eve afternoon. The week before the Australian Open she intends to play the Hobart International in Tasmania.

CAROL ZHAO: The No. 146-ranked Zhao, 22, will be playing the qualifying for the WTA International event in Shenzhen, China, before travelling to Melbourne for her first try at qualifying for a Grand Slam event.

Grand Slam qualifying record: 0-0 – no qualifying played.

FRANCOISE ABANDA: Things aren’t certain for the No. 124-ranked Abanda, 20, but it appears she may play the qualifying for the Brisbane International before the Aussie Open qualies the following week.

Grand Slam qualifying record: 14-4 – qualified three in seven attempts.

BIANCA ANDREESCU: The 17-year-old, currently ranked No. 190, is going to play the $25,000 Challenger event two weeks before the Aussie Open in Playford (Adelaide), and then the qualifying at Melbourne Park.

Grand Slam qualifying record: 3-2 – qualified once in three attempts.

Another Net Game

Two famous movie stars – Paul Newman and Robert Redford – were photographed playing ping pong on the set of their Oscar-nominated film “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”

Times Change

This one is hard to believe – a patient being offered a choice of cigarettes in a hospital room in the 1950s.


Feature Picture: Lucas Pouille Twitter (@la_pouille)

Next Week: The 5th Annual Genius/Joker Quiz.