Serena Williams has won the Australian Open five times in the past nine years.
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By Matt Cronin, special to USTA.com
MELBOURNE, Australia -- If not for the larger-than-life presence of the legendary Serena Williams, the United States would enter a tournament that it has dominated many times as a nation that merely is hopeful of, rather than cocksure of excellent results.
Serena has won the Australian Open five times in the past nine years, and no other player has won it twice during her reign. So despite the fact that the former No. 1 enters the 2012 version with a twisted ankle and is seeded a 'lowly' No. 12, she still is at the very least a top-five favorite in Melbourne.
The U.S. men and the rest of the U.S. women are another case entirely. Since the retirement of the United States' so-called Fab 4 (Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jim Courier and Michael Chang), American men have been unable to reach an Aussie final. Sampras' generation combined for eight Australian titles between 1992 and 2003 (Agassi's fourth and final crown), but despite some strong runs by Andy Roddick, who has reached the semifinals on four occasions, Europeans have taken over the tournament, with the current Big 3 of Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer combining for seven of the past eight titles.
This year, the United States has three men seeded: No. 8 Mardy Fish, No. 15 Roddick and No. 16 John Isner. All are capable of reaching the second week of the tournament if they play their best, but none of them have cake-walk draws.
Roddick, who has been battling injuries the past two years and has yet to play an ATP tournament in 2012, has one of his toughest early draws ever at the event: he opens against the big-serving Dutchman Robin Haase; might have to face his old rival, former No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt of Australia in the second round in what sure is to be a heavily promoted night match; could play the red-hot young Canadian Milos Raonic in the third round, and even if he gets through there, he may have to face defending champion Djokovic in the fourth round, who won three 2011 Grand Slam titles and was all but unstoppable on outdoor hardcourts.
This might be Isner's year to really break through at the majors, as he's 26 now and during the second half of 2011 really showed that he's become a better all-around player. Given that he has had excellent results on hardcourts before, there is no reason why the towering Amercian cannot make big strides to the final four. But it's easier said than done: after opening against Aussie wild card Ben Mitchell, Isner might face the winner of former top-five player David Nalbandian or the tricky Finn Jarkko Nieminen. He may have to confront Spanish server-and-volleyer Feliciano Lopez in the third round and then a man whom he likes to confront but is extremely tough to take down on a good day, 2009 Aussie champion Nadal, in the round of 16.
Fish is looking to reach the first Grand Slam semi of his career, but he may have to go through Federer to get there. But first things first for the veteran attacking player: in the first round, he has a dicey match against Gilles Muller, who once upset Roddick at the US Open; may have to play the streaky Juan Monaco in round three and then his friend, 2009 US Open champion Juan Martin Del Potro, who seems to be getting closer to his major winning form with each passing day.
Given his consistently devastating form last year and how confident he looked in taking down Federer and Nadal to win his first US Open in September, Djokovic has to be considered the tournament's favorite, followed closely by Federer, who had a terrific end to 2011, when he won three straight events, the always game Nadal, and No. 4 Andy Murray, who by hiring former US Open champion Ivan Lendl as his new coach, made a very bold move and showed that he is super determined to change his Grand Slam fortunes. Murray will open against one of the U.S.'s most promising players, teenager Ryan Harrison, who is capable of pulling off a substantial upset on a great day.
Before Serena won her first Australian title in 2003, when she took out her sister Venus in the final in what was arguably the sisters' best match against each other ever, soon to be hall-of-famer Jennifer Capriati won the 2001 and 2002 titles over the cagey Swiss Martina Hingis, and another American, Lindsay Davenport, won the crown in 2000, also over Hingis, who had won the crown during the three years prior. On the WTA side, it's hard to find a recent period when the U.S. came into the tournament with only outside hopefuls. Monica Seles won the crown in 1996 as an Amercian, half-American Mary Pierce won it in 1995, and current Fed Cup coach Mary Joe Fernandez reached the finals in 1990 and 1992. Two other U.S. legends, Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, won the title on multiple occasions.
But without seven-time Grand Slam champion Venus Williams backing her up (who pulled out of the tournament due to illness), Serena may once again be asked to carry the weight of U.S. expectations.
U.S. Fed Cupper Bethanie Mattek-Sands has returned to the tour after taking three months off due to shoulder trouble and has designs on cracking the top 30, while teenager Christina McHale was the youngest player in the year-end WTA top 45.
Both have difficult opening matches, with Mattek-Sands having to go up against eighth seed Agnieszka Radwanska and McHale facing No. 24 Lucie Safarova.
Even if those two pull off upsets, most eyes will be on Serena, who was unable to defend her championship last year due to injury and who returned last summer and nearly looked like her old self on hardcourts, winning Stanford, Toronto and reaching the US Open final.
She does not have an easy draw, as she opens against the ambitious Tamira Paszek, may have to tackle former Roland Garros semifinalist Dominica Cibulkova in the third round, possibly former US Open finalist Vera Zvonareva in the fourth round, and maybe the woman she beat to win the 2007 title, No. 4 Maria Sharapova, in the quarterfinals.
She is on the same side of the draw as Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova, who perhaps can match her power, as well as reigning US Open champion Samantha Stosur, who stunned her in New York.
Without a doubt, the WTA field is once again wide open. No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki has yet to win a major and is contending with a wrist injury, but she's proud enough to make a strong stand in a quarter that contains last year's champion, Kim Clijsters (who also has been hurt recently), as well as Roland Garros titlist Li Na, who has regained her forceful game at the start of this season. The powerful No. 3 Victoria Azarenka seems overdue for a major title, as does the smooth Radwanska.
If there is one thing to look for at the Australian Open and for the rest of the season, it's whether there will be a true changing of the guard in 2012. While young players Wozniacki, Kvitova and Azarenka hold the three top spots, only the Czech has been able to win a major, and the veterans, like Clijsters, Li, Stosur, Sharapova and Serena, have done a good job of holding off their precious charges at the majors.
That could change in the next two weeks, but if the veterans once again put up a strong front, "Generation Caro" and their teams might also have to go back to the drawing board.