U.S. players in the Australian Open
What can we expect from the Americans at the Australian Open? It depends on which draw you're looking at. Hopes are high for the women because of the presence of Serena Williams and the potential breakthrough of the next generation of players, led by 19-year-old Sloane Stephens. Four women are seeded and 11 are in the draw (with one more on the verge of qualifying).
The men's outlook, however, is far less rosy. With John Isner and Mardy Fish sidelined and Andy Roddick enjoying retirement, the buzz around the Americans is virtually nonexistent. To make matters worse, three U.S. players are in No. 1 Novak Djokovic's section of the draw. The U.S. has a mere five men in the main draw, though that number could double with five more still alive in qualifying.
Here's a brief rundown of the Americans in Melbourne.
Serena Williams (No. 3 seed): Williams, who has an Open Era-record five Australian Open titles, is a heavy favorite to win her third consecutive Grand Slam tournament and 16th major overall. Coming off an easy run to the Brisbane title, she's the one beat.
Varvara Lepchenko (No. 21 seed): Don't expect too much from the American No. 2. Lepchenko had a breakout 2012 primarily based on her clay results. She's never won a main-draw match in four previous appearances in Melbourne and says she's had some issues during the offseason that didn't let her train as well as she would have liked. A run to the third round would be a success.
Venus Williams (No. 25 seed): Under-the-radar fact: Venus is on an eight-match winning streak. She finished 2012 with a title in Luxembourg and started this year with three exhibition victories at Hopman Cup. Everyone's looking forward to her projected third-round match against Maria Sharapova, but keep in that mind that since her comeback last spring, Venus hasn't progressed past the second round in three Slam appearances. Still, look for her to team up with Serena in doubles and take home the trophy.
Sloane Stephens (No. 29 seed): There's so much to get excited about with Stephens, who has a precocious personality and powerful game. A speedster who can crack the ball, she'll go into Melbourne on the heels of a quarterfinal in Brisbane and semifinal in Hobart. She is in a tricky section of the draw in which she could face 2011 Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova, 2010 French Open champion Francesca Schiavone or fellow teen Laura Robson in the third round. A quarterfinal date against Serena isn't out of the question.
Christina McHale (Unseeded, No. 36 in the world): Diagnosed with mono last fall, the 20-year-old from New Jersey is still trying to find the form that got her to a career-high ranking of No. 24 in August.
Jamie Hampton (Unseeded, No. 64): The Alabama native had a career week in Auckland, where she made her first WTA semifinal and pushed Agnieszka Radwanska to two tiebreakers before losing. While her nerves can get the better of her, Hampton has a game worth watching. She possesses a big forehand and doesn't think twice about coming to the net to finish off points. That makes her a WTA rarity (or ATP rarity, for that matter). Unfortunately, she's been handed a tough draw, getting Aga's younger sister, Urszula, in the first round and a potential third-round match against Victoria Azarenka.
Vania King (Unseeded, No. 75): King hasn't won a main-draw match since last summer in Washington, D.C., finishing the 2012 season on a five-match losing streak. She lost in the final round of qualifying this year in Brisbane. She's drawn the tough-as-nails (and future Mrs. Alexander Ovechkin) Maria Kirilenko in the first round.
Melanie Oudin (Unseeded, No. 82): Oudin has never won a match in three Australian Opens, and she's won only two WTA-level matches since taking the Birmingham title last June. She's drawn Laura Robson in the first round. The two played in the first round of qualifying here last year with Robson rolling 6-3, 6-4. Can't see Oudin's getting past that match.
Lauren Davis (Unseeded, No. 91): Davis has come a long way from being the unknown teenager whom Sam Stosur demolished 6-1, 6-1 on Rod Laver Arena two years ago. What the 5-foot-2 Davis lacks in height she more than makes up for in heart. The 19-year-old had one heck of a run in Hobart this week, successfully qualifying and then making her first WTA semifinal, where she went toe-to-toe with Stephens. Davis showed me a lot in that match, not just in her willingness to fight but also her ability to absorb and redirect pace. She's drawn a qualifier in the first round and then could play Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in the second round.
Coco Vandeweghe (Unseeded, No. 100): She has a world-class serve and backhand, but it's her movement that's been holding her back. That said, she has a chance to make the third round if she can get past her opener against the erratic Sorana Cirstea, who lost to Davis in Hobart.
Madison Keys (Unseeded, No. 135): Keys, 17, won the USTA wild-card playoff in the fall to earn her spot in the main draw. The more we see her play, the more excited we get. She doesn't make it to the WTA stage often because the tour's age rules restricted the number of tournaments she can play. But in Sydney, she won three matches to qualify before upsetting Lucie Safarova for her first top-20 win. She went on to push Li Na to three sets in her first WTA quarterfinal. Keys has a doable path to the third round, with Casey Dellacqua in the first round and a winnable potential match against the slumping Tamira Paszek in the second. That would give her a shot at No. 5 Angelique Kerber -- a popcorn match.
Sam Querrey (No. 20 seed): With Isner's withdrawal, Querrey is the only seeded American on the men's side. An Auckland semifinalist this week, he's a solid pick to make the fourth round. He'll open against a qualifier and could face Brian Baker in the second round. If he can get past a potential match with Stanislas Wawrinka in the third round, he'd get a shot against Djokovic.
Brian Baker (Unseeded, No. 59): This is Baker's first Australian Open and the draw gods have been kind enough to give him a qualifier in the first round. This should be an interesting season for Baker, who (understandably) couldn't replicate the success he had on clay and grass through the end of his 2012 season. That said, he had a good, tough win over Jerzy Janowicz in Auckland this week.
Ryan Harrison (Unseeded, No. 68): One of these days Harrison will get a kind draw at a Slam, but it won't be in Melbourne. Last year, he drew Andy Murray in the first round, and this year he could meet Djokovic in the second round. That's if he can get past Colombia's Santiago Giraldo, who beat him on grass at the Olympics.
Michael Russell (Unseeded, No. 92): Bad luck for the sleeveless one. He's drawn Tomas Berdych in the first round. Rhyne Williams (Unseeded, No. 194): Williams got in through the USTA wild-card playoff. He'll face the slicing-and-dicing No. 25 seed, Florian Mayer, in the first round.