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2017 Australian Open preview: Serena leads American charge

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 11: Serena Williams of the USA hits a backhand during a practice session ahead of the 2017 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 11, 2017 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Michael Dodge/Getty Images)
January 13, 2017 11:29 AM

By Ashley Marshall, USTA.com

Serena Williams’ path to a record 23rd Grand Slam singles title at the 2017 Australian Open is far from easy, with the world No. 2 potentially facing some familiar friends and foes as she looks to break the Open era mark she currently shares with Steffi Graf. 

The 35-year-old’s first challenge will come in the form of Swiss teen Belinda Bencic, who was born less than a year before the American made her Grand Slam debut and who defeated the six-time Melbourne champion when the pair last met in Toronto in 2015.

Should second-seeded Serena advance past 19-year-old Bencic – who was ranked as high as No. 7 less than a year ago and is currently No. 48 after an injury-plagued 2016 – she could meet former world No. 5 and French Open finalist Lucie Safarova in the second round. 

No. 25 seed Timea Babos could play spoiler in the third round, while world No. 19 Barbora Strycova is a possible opponent in the round of 16. Close friend and former world No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki as well as two in-form Top 10 players – 2016 WTA Finals champion and No. 6 Dominika Cibulkova  and No. 9 Johanna Konta – are also in Serena’s quarter of the draw and could present a dangerous hurdle at the start of the second week.

If Serena makes it to the final four, fifth-seeded Karolina Pliskova, the woman who shocked her at the US Open semifinals in September, and world No. 3 Agnieszka Radwanska, a former Wimbledon runner-up and Australian Open semifinalist, may await. 

The seventh and final piece of the puzzle could be world No. 1 and defending champion Angelique Kerber. The German reached the final of three of the four majors last year, beating Serena in Melbourne, losing to her at Wimbledon and then toppling Pliskova in Flushing Meadows.

Talk of Serena matching and surpassing Graf’s 22 major wins has been constant since she completed her second ‘Serena Slam’ – holding all four Slams simultaneously – at Wimbledon 2015 and came within two matches of completing the first calendar-year Slam since Graf last achieved the feat in 1988. A win at the US Open in 2015 would have also tied Graf’s mark, but she had to wait until last summer to claim No. 22, again on the grass of southwest London.
While Serena is the most likely American to win a singles title Down Under, Team USA has plenty of other rooting interests.

The U.S. has 25 players – more than any other nation – who received direct entry into the main draw: 16 women and nine men. In addition, eight U.S. men and four women are into the final round of the qualifying tournament, which will see that number climb further. 

Among the other American seeds in action, No. 13 seed Venus Williams will play Kateryna Kozlova in the first round, No. 19 John Isner will face Konstantin Kravchuk, 23rd-seeded Jack Sock will meet Pierre-Hughes Herbert and No. 31 Sam Querrey will play Quentin Halys.

Querrey, who upset then-world No. 1 Novak Djokovic in the third round of Wimbledon in June, could meet world current No. 1 Andy Murray in the third round, while Isner may go up against Murray one round later. 

Other notable American men to keep an eye on include young gun Taylor Fritz, who opens against Gilles Muller and may face No. 3 seed Milos Raonic in the second round, and world No. 33 Steve Johnson, the highest unseeded player in the draw, who could play reigning US Open champ Stan Wawrinka in the second round.

On the women’s side, two all-American battles highlight Kerber’s top quarter of the draw. Alison Riske plays Madison Brengle and Samantha Crawford faces Lauren Davis. Shelby Rogers has a tough opening match with No. 4 seed Simona Halep, while 2016 US Open girls’ juniors champ and USTA Pro Circuit Australian Open Wild Card Challenge winner Kayla Day will begin her professional career against former world No. 9 Andrea Petkovic.