American women seedless in Australia

And so, to recap: Lindsay Davenport says it's time to start a family, and, shoot, nobody does that and plays tennis anymore. Venus Williams has a recurrent lousy wrist. Her sister, Serena, coming off a four-month injury layoff, just got beat in a pre-Aussie Open tournament by a woman named Unseeded.

Memo to Meghann Shaughnessy: Way to go! You're it.

Not to go all jingoistic on the eve of the first major of the year, but where'd all the good American women go? Granted, there hasn't been a time over the past couple of years when you could say with assurance that a given major field would include the Williams sisters and Davenport -- heavens, even a Capriati or Seles now and again -- all in the same place. Anytime it did, though, it was such great theater.

It is also, officially, a thing of the past. Davenport has made it clear she considers herself a former touring pro. Venus has for years been a player on the verge of career distraction or abandonment, with interests that range far from the court. Serena, who still strikes you as the kind of player who could be just about unbeatable if she wanted to, simply isn't there -- and she may never be again, depending upon the time and commitment she's willing to invest.

Tennis goes through these lulls from time to time, like any other individual sport, but it's a tough sell to an American audience right now. Fans of the game in general are already being punished by the absence of Justin Henin-Hardenne from the Aussie field, leaving Maria Sharapova a path to the finals (come on, Martina Hingis! Make it interesting!); but beyond Sharapova's striking presence, the U.S. watcher will generally look around for the Americans.

So where are they? It's a fair question. It was so easy over the last few years to fixate on the Williamses that it may have escaped notice they're actually a fluke. They are the direct product of a single set of circumstances that, in their case, significantly involves a tennis-savvy stage father and two preternaturally determined players. What they are not, is part of any larger, nationally coordinated movement.

Americans in sport, for the most part, have viewed the academy system as a foreign sort of thing to do, going back to the Cold War days when it was clear that the U.S.S.R. was producing superior Olympic athletes by a regimented and carefully orchestrated assembly line of talent. But a quick glance at the WTA rankings suggests that the academy system is churning out some great players. The U.S.? Shaughnessy is the highest-ranked active player, at No. 40.

After that, it's a steady diet of players like Jamea Jackson and Shenay Perry, able talents who simply aren't top-20 players. Seems like a long time ago that even a casual glance at the top 10 would reveal Venus, Serena and Davenport in some combination or other.

So where does all this leave the Australian Open? A little bereft, for a major. Henin-Hardenne's absence is notable internationally, and with the Americans going away and taking their star power with them, it's up to Sharapova and perhaps Amelie Mauresmo to light the candle for the women's side in Melbourne.

I'd light one for Serena, but I don't think she needs it. She was ranked 95th coming into the Hobart tourney at which she bowed out in the quarterfinals, but she treated the event for what it needed to be, an Aussie Open warm-up. Though she goes unseeded into the major and is just coming back after not playing since the U.S. Open, it won't surprise anyone to see Serena make some noise.

The problem, from a purely nationalistic standpoint, is that Serena comes and goes, as her interest appears to wax and wane. It's her prerogative, of course -- she's won seven majors. She doesn't owe anybody an explanation. But there can't be a fan truly interested in the women's game on the American side who doesn't wish sometimes to see Williams the Younger really crank her game back up to an elite level.

It isn't there right now, and so it goes. Welcome to Melbourne: You've got no U.S. women among the 32 seeds. It needs to be a fortnight of tremendous surprise to get the Americans back in the game.

Mark Kreidler's book "Four Days to Glory: Wrestling With the Soul of the American Heartland" is available in bookstores Jan. 23 and may be preordered at amazon.com and markkreidler.com. A regular contributor to ESPN.com, Kreidler can be reached at mkreidler@sacbee.com.