With midsummer days heating up in the southern hemisphere, the first Grand Slam tournament of 2015 — the Australian Open in Melbourne, Australia — began Monday, marking the end of a long wait for tennis fans.
Over a century old, this venerable event is best known as the start of the Grand Slam tennis season and brings a return of fan favorites and new hopefuls to the court. The players return fresh, with past injuries or disappointing performances healed over, and their level of play over the next two weeks will provide an excellent indication of how the Grand Slam season will go.
The challenge for all the players is twofold. First, the Australian Open is notorious for the blazing heat, which is an inhibiting factor in summertime Australia. Secondly, a solid performance at the Australian Open is important because it’s a four-month wait until the next Grand Slam event takes place at the French Open.
All eyes will be on the reigning US Open, WTA Tour and Olympic champion Serena Williams, 33, who has won the Australian Open five times, most recently in 2010. She returns to Melbourne fresh off a stellar second half of 2014 in which she garnered her sixth US Open singles title.
If Williams wins the Australian Open, it will mark her 19th Grand Slam title. She would surpass Chris Everett and Martina Navratilova for the second-most Grand Slam titles among women, trailing only Steffi Graf, who won 22. She and Graf both hold the distinction of possessing the Golden Slam — winning the Olympics and the four majors at least once in their careers.
"I'm not very happy with (my form), but I'm never really happy about my practice or preparation," Williams said at a media conference in Melbourne just prior to the start of the tournament.
"It would be really great to win here again," she continued. "I've been going for number six for a number of years now. I would be really happy. So I want it I think more than anyone else here. But that doesn't mean I'm going to get it, so I'll have to fight hard to get it."
Williams will meet her first opponent, Alison Van Uytvanck of Belgium, on Tuesday. Her sister Venus Williams, currently ranked No. 18 in the world, begins play on Tuesday against Maria Torro-Flor of Spain. The sisters are on track for a possible showdown in the semifinals in Melbourne.
Other fan favorites from the U.S. include Bob and Mike Bryan, 36, identical twins and 2012 Olympic gold medalists in men’s doubles. They have won the Australian Open six times. During 2014, the Bryan brothers earned 10 titles, including six at the master level, and posted their 100th tournament victory. At 103 titles, they are closing in on American tennis legend Jimmy Connors’ all-time record of 109 ATP titles. The Bryan brothers play their first round of doubles against Australians John Millman and Benjamin Mitchell.
The long-legged John Isner, 30, is one to watch on the courts amongst men’s singles players from the U.S. Isner, ranked 18th overall, played mixed doubles with Serena Williams at the Hopman Cup in Perth, Australia, a few weeks before this tournament. Isner and Williams narrowly lost the championship match to a duo from Poland, but Williams had nothing but praise for her doubles partner.
As a singles player, Isner is the only American male seeded in the top 32 at the Australian Open. In his time here in 2010, Isner reached the fourth round. Isner will meet his first opponent, Jimmy Wang of Taiwan, on Tuesday. American Sam Querrey faces Vasek Pospisi of Canada also on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, 18-year old Taylor Townsend is getting noticed not only for her promising future but also for her style of play. Noted for being a left-handed player with both finesse and athleticism, if she does well in Australia, she may solidify her position of being “one to watch” for the Grand Slam season ahead. Ranked No. 102, Townsend has a tough first match as she takes on eighth-seeded Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark on Tuesday.
Another American to keep an eye on is Madison Keys. She is ranked 35th in the world and is coached by Hall of Famer Lindsay Davenport. Keys is noted for her ability to control the game with her serve. She faces Lesia Tsurenko of the Ukraine on Tuesday, while fellow American Sloane Stephens takes on Victoria Azarenka of Belarus.
Laurie Fullerton writes about sports and outdoors — particularly sailing — for a number of newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.