The United States began the 2016 Australian Open with 29 players in the main draw — 10 more than any other nation competing in the year’s first Grand Slam event in Melbourne.
That contingent includes 17 American women, with all eyes expected to be on world No. 1 Serena Williams once again as she tries to defend her title and get back to her winning ways after her quest for a Grand Slam sweep fell just short last September in New York.
The Australian Open began on Monday and continues through Jan. 31.
Here’s a look at the top U.S. prospects in the event.
Serena’s Road To A Seventh Title Won’t Be Easy
Williams is coming off a historic year, having won three of four Grand Slam events before being stunned by Roberta Vinci in the U.S. Open semifinals to fall just two matches short of completing the first calendar-year Grand Slam since Steffi Graf in 1988.
Williams is going after her 22nd Grand Slam women’s singles title, which would match Graf for the most in the Open era, but her path to winner’s circle won’t be easy. She could potentially play rival Maria Sharapova in the quarterfinals.
Williams, Sports Illustrated’s 2015 Sportsperson of the Year, has lifted the trophy six times in the past 13 years at Melbourne Park, most recently beating Sharapova in the final last year in straight sets.
Despite a nagging knee injury — which forced her to withdraw from the Hopman Cup earlier this month — and not having played a single official match on the women’s tour since September, Williams is still the one to beat. The 34-year-old told reporters at the pre-tournament press conference that she’s at 120 or 130 percent.
“Honestly, I don't have anything to prove,” Williams said. “I have nothing to lose. I can only gain. That's kind of how I look at it right now.
“I've had a really good preparation. I mean, I didn't have the match play that I've wanted to have. But after playing for so many years on tour, I should be able to focus on that and the fact that I have played a lot of matches. So, that's what I'm trying to focus on now.”
Her older sister, Venus Williams, has climbed back into the top 10 at No. 8 and is in the opposite side of the draw in Melbourne.
The two other seeded American women are No. 15 Madison Keys and No. 24 Sloane Stephens. Keys was a breakout star in Melbourne last year, beating Venus Williams en route to the semifinals, but her expectations are up in the air as she’s nursing an arm injury. Meanwhile, Stephens’ tournament had barely gotten started when it abruptly ended with a first-round loss Monday to China’s Wang Qiang, who is ranked No. 102.
Tall Task: Isner Leads U.S. Hopes In Men’s Draw
The top U.S. men’s player, John Isner, heads into 2016 ranked No. 10, and the 6-foot-10 player will start his draw against Poland’s 6-foot-8 Jerzy Janowicz, making it one of the tallest matchups in tour history. The big-serving Isner is aiming to make the quarterfinals at a Grand Slam event for just the second time in his career.
Ranked No. 25, rising American star Jack Sock, known for his ridiculous forehand and net play, will try to make it past the second round of the Australian Open for the first time. He’s coming off an impressive performance at the ASB Classic, where he upset top-seeded David Ferrer of Spain in the semifinals. But fans will keep a close eye on Sock’s fitness and stamina levels this week after he was forced to retire from his ASB Classic final-round match against Spain’s Roberto Bautista Agut due to flu-like symptoms.
Two-time NCAA champion Steve Johnson out of USC, the most-decorated collegiate tennis player in history, is ranked No. 31, the highest he’s ever been ranked. In his Australian Open debut last year, the right-handed hitter bowed out in the first round.
Bryan Brothers Look For Rebound Season
Olympic champions and brothers Bob and Mike Bryan will be the top U.S. hopes in the Australian Open doubles competition, even though they are coming off a challenging season marked by injuries and disappointing performances. Despite finishing last season with a 44-16 record and an ATP Tour-leading six team titles, the Bryans failed to win a Grand Slam tournament title together for the first time in a decade. The duo has won the Australian Open six times, last taking the title in 2013, and they reworked their training methods and offseason habits this winter to help themselves regroup.
New No. 1 From Australia Challenges David Wagner’s Dominance
Six-time Paralympic medalist David Wagner is expected to be the lone U.S. participant in the Australian Open wheelchair tennis tournament, which takes place at Melbourne Park from Jan. 28-31. Up until 2015, he was consistently ranked No. 1 in the world in the quads classification, but he has since slipped down a spot due to the emergence of Australia’s Dylan Alcott. The wheelchair tennis draw for the Australian Open will be held the week of Jan. 24.
Stuart Lieberman covered Paralympic sports for three years at the International Paralympic Committee, including at the London 2012 and Sochi 2014 Games. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.