Nine Americans to watch at the Australian Open
MELBOURNE -- With the Australian Open draw completed, we now take a look at how the Americans could fare Down Under. Here are the nine players we're keeping an eye on when the tournament kicks off on Monday (or Sunday night in the United States).
Serena Williams (No. 1 seed): Victoria Azarenka may be the two-time defending champion, but Williams is the favorite to win this year. Should she win the tournament for a sixth time, Williams would tie Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova with 18 Grand Slam titles, putting her just four behind Steffi Graf's seemingly untouchable Open era record of 22. Williams enters on a 22-match winning streak dating to last year's U.S. Open, including last week's title at the Brisbane International, where she beat No. 2 Azarenka and new No. 3 Maria Sharapova in straight sets.
John Isner (No. 13 seed): Isner's struggles outside of the comfy confines of North America have been well documented, but he may have turned a corner this year. In his warm-up tournaments, he's successfully scratched out some tight three-set wins that will only bolster his confidence going into Melbourne. Isner opens against a qualifier and could get another qualifier in the second round before a potential third-round showdown with his Grand Slam nemesis, Philipp Kohlschreiber. The German knocked him out of the last two U.S. Opens, but Isner edged Kohlschreiber 6-7 (4), 7-6 (4), 7-6 (5) at the Heineken Open this week. Isner has a great opportunity to reach the fourth round, where he could potentially play Andy Murray.
Sloane Stephens (No. 13 seed): Stephens has a tough but workable draw; a potential fourth-round match against Azarenka would set up a rematch of last year's semifinal. While she's drawn some potentially dangerous opponents in the first few rounds in Yaroslava Shvedova, Ajla Tomljanovic and Svetlana Kuznetsova, each of those players could also self-destruct. Stephens loves the big stage and has yet to have a weak performance at a Grand Slam. At her best, she's more than capable of pulling off the big upset against Azarenka, and if things break her way, a run to the finals would not surprise me one bit.
Jamie Hampton (No. 27 seed): The good news is that Hampton could easily reach the third round, where she'd likely meet Azarenka. (Hampton pushed Azarenka to three sets last year in Melbourne.) The bad news is that she's nursing a hip injury that has derailed her preparation. Given her injury, reaching the third round would be a big victory. [UPDATED: Hampton withdrew from the tournament on Saturday with a hip injury.]
Madison Keys (unseeded): The 18-year-old has made the semifinals in two of her last three tournaments and comes into Melbourne as one of the most dangerous unseeded players. She's still very much a work in progress -- the decision-making and footwork need improvement -- but she has a soft draw. She opens against No. 84 Patricia Mayr-Achleitner followed by a winnable match against either No. 12 Roberta Vinci (who has never been past the third round) or No. 49 Zheng Jie. In a potential third-round match, she would likely face either No. 18 Kirsten Flipkens or Laura Robson, both of whom are struggling. Keys made the third round here last year and she very well could go one round better this year.
Venus Williams (unseeded): Venus has a tough opening match against Russian lefty Ekaterina Makarova, a quarterfinalist in each of the last two years. Get past that test and she could face the big-hitting but erratic Sabine Lisicki in the third round to set up a potential fourth-round clash against Li Na. Petra Kvitova, whom Venus pushed to three tight sets at the Tokyo Open last year, would loom in the quarterfinals. If Venus' body holds up, she could end up busting the bracket.
Sam Querrey (unseeded): Match-to-match consistency still eludes Querrey, but he has the talent to make good on a favorable draw until the fourth round, where Novak Djokovic would await. The toughest road block for Querrey's success (other than himself) is a second-round match against either Ernests Gulbis or Juan Monaco. Querrey hasn't beaten Monaco since 2007 (Monaco leads the head-to-head 3-1), but he's 2-2 against Gulbis and has always played him well.
Bethanie Mattek-Sands (unseeded): Mattek-Sands will be amped up for her first-round match against Sharapova. She started the season with a big win over No. 5 Agnieszka Radwanska but is struggling with a lower-back injury that forced her to withdraw from the Sydney International. If the 28-year-old can get fit in time, she could cause the No. 3 seed a lot of problems.
Alison Riske (unseeded): Ranked No. 187 a year ago, the 23-year-old has surged to No. 55 thanks to her longstanding grass-court prowess and her newfound ability to win matches on hard courts. She opens against an injured Elena Vesnina. One third-round possibility is No. 9 Angelique Kerber, who made the Sydney International final this week. Survive all that and she could play Petra Kvitova, whom she beat at the U.S. Open last year.
***It's also worth noting that five U.S. men ranked between No. 89 and No. 100 -- Tim Smyczek, Bradley Klahn, Donald Young, Ryan Harrison and Jack Sock -- are all in the same quarter.