Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
The 2011 tennis season is already well underway, but it will be upon us full-bore when the Australian Open swings into action next week.
Most of the usual suspects will be on hand in Melbourne, with the exception (big exception) of the reigning two-time women's champion, Serena Williams. The 13-time major titlist has been sidelined for six months and she continues to nurse a foot injury that required surgery last summer.
The five-time Aussie Open champ Serena, who beat her arch-rival Justine Henin in three sets in last year's marquee women's finale in Oz, will not get a chance to become the first woman to win three straight Aussies since the "Swiss Miss," Martina Hingis, turned the trick from 1997-99.
Roger Federer boasts four Aussie Open titles among his 16 major championships.
No American woman has ever won the event three straight years.
The 2004 Aussie champion Henin will be on hand for the ladies, while the men's field will be spearheaded by, who else, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, the two gents who have simply dominated the Slams in recent years.
The 16-time major titlist Federer is the reigning men's champ and has won the Melbourne extravaganza no less than four times. The Swiss stud beat British star Andy Murray in last year's finale after finishing as the runner-up to Nadal there a year earlier.
The machine-like Federer has reached seven straight Aussie Open semis.
Rafael Nadal needs the Aussie Open if he wants to win a remarkable four straight Slams.
Nadal, meanwhile, will look to make some history at the Aussie, as he'll seek a rare fourth straight Grand Slam title, something that hasn't been done on the men's tour since Aussie legend "Rocket" Rod Laver won all four majors in the same season way back in 1969.
The nine-time Grand Slam ace Nadal won three of the four majors last season, with all three coming in succession, at the French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open. He bowed out in an Aussie quarterfinal against Murray when he retired in the third set because of knee problems.
Federer and Nadal have accounted for five of the last seven titles Down Under, including four for the former top-ranked Federer. And the two greats have hogged up 25 of the last 30 major titles.
FYI: The last American man to rule in Melbourne was Andre Agassi, eight years ago.
Over on the ladies' side, with Serena out of the picture, we have to look at Kim Clijsters, Caroline Wozniacki, Vera Zvonareva, perhaps former top-ranked star Venus Williams, Henin, and Maria Sharapova as the top contenders at the fortnight.
Serena Williams is still sidelined and will not get a crack at a third straight Melbourne championship.
Wozniacki is currently the top-ranked woman in the world, but Clijsters will be the one to beat in Melbourne. The Belgian mom closed out her 2010 campaign by running the tables at the U.S. Open (for a second straight year) and the prestigious WTA Championships in Doha.
That sounds like a favorite to me.
Clijsters, however, has never won the Aussie Open, where she was the runner-up to her long-time rival and fellow former No. 1 Henin back in 2004.
The seven-time Grand Slam champ Henin has been sidelined because of an elbow injury since July, but claims she is ready to go in Oz, where, in addition to her '04 championship, she was the runner-up in 2006 and last year.
Watch out if she's indeed healthy.
Back over on the men's side, Nadal and Federer can expect to be challenged by the likes of U.S. Open runner-up Novak Djokovic and the 2010 Oz runner-up Murray. Djokovic captured his lone major title in Melbourne three years ago, while Murray missed out on a chance to title there last year when he ran into Federer in the championship round.
Andy Murray was last year's Oz runner-up to Roger Federer.
World No. 5 Robin Soderling also expects to be in the mix. The big-hitting Swede has appeared in the last two French Open finals, losing to Federer and Nadal, respectively, and is fresh off his title in Brisbane, where he handled American Andy Roddick in the star-studded final.
The former No. 1 Roddick, with the exception of that epic 2009 Wimbledon final when he pushed Federer to 30 games in the fifth set, has not really been a major factor at the majors over the last couple of years. The 2003 U.S. Open champ, who reached the Aussie quarters last year, has never landed in a finale in Melbourne, where he's a very-respectable four-time semifinalist.
Keep an eye on the excited Roddick, he's extremely fit now following an injury-slowed '10 campaign.
How 'bout 2010 Wimbledon runner-up Tomas Berdych? Does the world No. 6 Czech have a shot in Melbourne? No way. Berdych doesn't thrive in the really hot conditions, like he's going to face Down Under, and he's been approaching brutal since reaching that Wimbledon finale last season.
Kim Clijsters is a three-time U.S. Open champ in search of a first-ever Aussie Open title.
Some other possible contenders among the men could be acrobatic Frenchman Gael Monfils, his countryman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, and on-the-mend former top-five slugger Juan Martin del Potro. Monfils certainly can beat anybody when he's healthy and his big game is on. The 2010 semifinalist Tsonga has all the shots and was an Aussie Open finalist three years ago. And the Argentine del Potro is honing his skills in Sydney this week in hopes of making a second-week run in Melbourne. The 2009 U.S. Open champion "Delpo" missed most of the 2010 season after suffering a wrist injury (that wound up requiring surgery) at the Aussie Open.
A resurgent Nikolay Davydenko could be a player to be reckoned with in Melbourne. The former top-five Russian grinder was a finalist last week in Doha, where, unfortunately for him, he ran into Federer. Davydenko stunned an ill Nadal in straight sets in the semis in Qatar and has a winning record overall (6-4) against the Spanish strongman, which bodes well for him should he run into Rafa.
Back to the ladies.
Clijsters, Wozniacki and Henin can expect resistance from the likes of Zvonareva, perhaps Venus, and Sharapova.
Maria Sharapova is a former No.1 and three-time major champion, including a title in Melbourne in 2008.
Zvonareva is the only woman to have played in the last two Grand Slam finals. But, unfortunately for the fiery Russian, she succumbed to Serena and Clijsters, respectively, in those biggest of bouts.
The seven-time Grand Slam titlist Venus has never won the Aussie Open and hasn't even reached a semi there since landing in the final back in '03, when she gave way to her younger sister. She's only advanced to the final four on two occasions Down Under, with the other one coming 10 long years ago.
The always-dangerous Sharapova seems to be finding her way back following some injuries and could make a nice run in Melbourne. The blonde bomber is a former world No. 1 and owns three major championships, including an Aussie Open one as recently as 2008. The two-time Aussie finalist was also a runner-up in Melbourne in '07.
Some other women in the mix could be heavy Aussie crowd favorite Sam Stosur, former No. 1 Jelena Jankovic and Belarusian masher Victoria Azarenka.
The 2010 French Open runner-up Stosur is the only Aussie woman with a chance of titling at Melbourne Park, but she's certainly not among the favorites to go all the way.
Jankovic and Azarenka can both crush the ball, but Jankovic (one career Oz semifinal) doesn't typically play her best major tennis in the Aussie heat, and the same can be said of the capable Azarenka (one career Aussie quarterfinal).
Justine Henin owns an Aussie Open crown and was last year's runner-up to Serena Williams.
Did I forget to mention French Open champion Francesca Schiavone?
A darkhorse on the ladies' side could be Belgian slugger Yanina Wickmayer, who, somehow, lost to Hungarian veteran Greta Arn in last week's hardcourt finale in Auckland.
I think Wickmayer, who has been ranked as high as No. 12 in the world and shares a birthday with yours truly, is primed for a big year.
Last year, China made some tennis history when it placed a pair of women in a Grand Slam semifinal for the first time. But don't expect that same result this time around from Li Na and Jie Zheng.
While the aforementioned Stosur gives the Aussie faithful their best hope among the women, the top Aussie male still has to be former No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt. The two-time major champion reached the Oz final back in 2005, which was six long years ago in a career that seems to be winding down at this point.
Andy Roddick is a four-time Aussie Open semifinalist.
The oft-injured Hewitt is currently ranked 54th in the world and really doesn't figure to be among the contenders in the 'Bourne. He's only ever reached one quarterfinal at his home major ('05).
The host Aussies haven't had a singles titlist at their home Slam since Chris O'Neil captured the ladies' title way back in 1978. And the last Aussie men's champ there was Mark Edmondson, back in 1976. Edmondson upset Aussie icon John Newcombe in that particular finale to capture his first-ever ATP-level title.
Time to make some picks.
My winner on the men's side is Federer, and I think Clijsters will break through for her first major title outside of New York among the women. I'm not sure why I'm not taking Nadal here...we'll just chalk it up to a hunch.