Commentary

Only Isner survives American demise

Updated: January 20, 2011, 9:58 AM ET
By Ravi Ubha | ESPN.com

MELBOURNE, Australia -- It's looking like one of those Grand Slams for American tennis.

Two more players lost Thursday at the Australian Open, meaning a paltry three remain in contention in the third round. Venus Williams and old reliable Andy Roddick were joined by John Isner.

Bad, but not quite as bad as the French Open on dreaded clay four years ago, when only the Williams sisters -- who else? -- survived the opening two rounds.

"And the French this year is going to be lousy, too," said ESPN analyst Pam Shriver. "If not, it'll be a pleasant surprise. Recently, Wimbledon has been the first major of the year where we have a strong showing."

How the U.S. contingent must be longing for the grass.

Michael Russell and Ryan Sweeting ran into a pair of tenacious Spaniards, David Ferrer and Rafael Nadal, respectively, to add to the woe. Each match lasted under two hours.

Sweeting lost to Nadal 6-2, 6-1, 6-1. The Bahamas-born qualifier, who is ranked 116th, said Nadal's style wore him out. Sweeting got some consolation by breaking Nadal in the third.

"Mentally, it was draining," Sweeting told reporters. "I'm running, running and running just to get a point in the game. It's not something I'm used to."

Russell was undone by eating too much pasta, thinking the previous match on Court 2 would go longer. By the time the 32-year-old, ranked 100th, recovered against seventh-seeded Ferrer, the American was in a sizable hole.

"I felt like every time I took a big breath, my lungs weren't expanding and my heart rate was at 200," said Russell, who lost 6-0, 6-1, 7-5.

Historically, at least two U.S. men have reached the third round of the Australian Open in the Open era, but when Isner dropped the first set to crafty Czech Radek Stepanek, a record of futility seemed likely. Stepanek, who was hampered by mono and a bum knee in 2010, is a cut above his ranking of 66th. Isner recovered, though, and cruised in the final three sets to advance 4-6, 6-4, 6-2, 6-1.

"It would be better if we had more than two left in the final 32," Isner told reporters. "But I think Andy has a good shot to do well here, and I also think I do. We're both going to want to do better than this."

The last time just one American woman got to the third round of a Grand Slam was here four years ago. Serena Williams at least went on to win the whole thing. A groin injury means Venus' chances of winning even another round are low. She didn't practice Thursday ahead of Friday's match with German Andrea Petkovic.

With Serena injured and Venus herself coming off a knee injury, little was expected from the female contingent, even if the colorful Bethanie Mattek-Sands had fine results earlier in January. Perhaps they overachieved. An impressive 12 landed in the main draw, seven 21 or younger.

The same couldn't be said of the men. Isner, Sam Querrey, Mardy Fish and 18-year-old prospect Ryan Harrison provided a nice-looking supporting cast to Roddick. Isner, Querrey and Fish all hoped to reach the second week.

Querrey, though, blew a lead in the first round against Pole Lukasz Kubot, who is more efficient in doubles than singles. While Querrey won four titles in 2010 and possesses two major weapons, the serve and forehand, he has yet to break through at a big event.

"It doesn't mean he can't correct it," Shriver said. "All it takes is one good major."

Harrison's best years are well ahead of him, yet topping former top-five regular Ivan Ljubicic at the U.S. Open (and almost eliminating fast-rising Ukrainian Sergiy Stakhovsky in the second round) suggested the teenager could beat unheralded Frenchman Adrian Mannarino in the Australian first round. Mannarino advanced in three.

Fish, in the best shape and form of his life, rallied to win Monday from two sets down -- for the first time in his career -- before a lingering virus took effect versus Spaniard Tommy Robredo.

Fish had a successful but grueling 2010, working hard to shed 30 pounds and contesting a marathon Davis Cup weekend against Colombia in September.

"He pushed himself as much as he ever pushed himself last year, so the fact that he's not feeling well to start the year isn't a stunner," Shriver said. "It's hard to maintain it. He was also a little unlucky."

Judging by how the first four days have gone in Melbourne for the U.S. delegation, Roddick, Isner and Williams could use some luck in the coming days.

Ravi Ubha is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.

London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com.