The first round of the Australian Open saw the likes of Venus Williams, Sloane Stephens, Jack Sock and CoCo Vandeweghe lose.
For one day at least, the political adage that we don't win anymore was firmly true—at least in the context of tennis. The opening day of the 2018 Australian Open was disastrous for American players, with just three of 15 players winning their matches. After the completion of the first round, 31 Americans had been whittled down to a mere 10. Among seeded competitors, only No. 17-seed Madison Keys and No. 13-seed Sam Querrey managed to advance to the second round.
Consider where we were at the end of the 2017 season. At the U.S. Open, all four women's semifinalists were American, including eventual winner Sloane Stephens. The U.S. was represented in the final at three of the year's four majors—Serena and Venus in Australia, Venus at Wimbledon, and Stephens and Madison Keys in Flushing. Even the men had a relatively good year: Sam Querrey reached the Wimbledon semifinals and U.S. Open quarterfinals and Jack Sock's Paris Masters title highlighted a strong fall season. Entering the Australian Open, despite Stephens's post-Flushing blues and Serena's continued absence, there was plenty of reason for optimism.
Monday was not an auspicious start to the Grand Slam season. Among the surprise losers were No. 5 seed Venus Williams, No. 10 and 2017 semifinalist CoCo Vandeweghe, No. 13 Sloane Stephens, No. 8 Jack Sock and No. 16 John Isner. Seven other Americans went down to defeat. Only Nicole Gibbs, Ryan Harrison and Mackenzie McDonald managed to escape the wreckage of the tournament's opening day.
Kevin King's loss completes the maudlin Monday for US tennis: 3-12.— Ben Rothenberg (@BenRothenberg) January 15, 2018
US men went 2-3; US women went a shocking 1-9.
Tuesday was slightly better. Though Donald Young and Frances Tiafoe predictably succumbed to Novak Djokovic and Juan Martin del Potro, respectively, seven Americans won their matches, including two favorites who advanced without drama. Keys won in straight sets over Wang Qiang, while Querrey beat Feliciano Lopez in rather impressive fashion—6–3, 6–4, 6–2—to advance as the lone seeded American man remaining. After Lukas Lacko's upset of Milos Raonic, Querrey—a quarterfinalist in the last two majors—has a real shot to reach the fourth round of the Australian Open for the first time ever. Unfortunately, he'd likely face Roger Federer, whom he has never beaten, if he gets there.
Keys, however, could seriously challenge for the title. The deep talent of the WTA field means no opponent should be overlooked, but Keys has a relatively favorable draw, particularly after Ana Bogdan ousted No. 11 seed Kristina Mladenovic—initially on track to be Keys's third–round opponent—in her opening match. Her flop against Sloane Stephens in the U.S. Open final obscures the real progress Keys seems to have made under the tutelage of Lindsay Davenport.
“I could not be more positive about 2018,” Davenport recently told Ben Rothenberg of The New York Times. “She’s fitter than I’ve ever seen her, and she’s excited to go out there and play.”
Keys's first major breakthrough came at the 2015 Australian Open, when she reached the semifinal. She may have ceded the spotlight to Stephens when she lost the U.S. Open final, but if she can avoid the injuries that plagued her 2017 season, we should expect her to be a perennial contender at the biggest tournaments—starting this year in Melbourne. But for most American contenders, it's time to assess what exactly went wrong after one of the worst Grand Slam showings in recent memory.