PHILADELPHIA - The 2012 tennis season will be in full stride when the Australian Open gets underway next week in Melbourne, where Novak Djokovic and Kim Clijsters will be on hand as your defending champions.
The 24-year-old Djokovic ascended to No. 1 last year partly because he captured his second Oz Open title in four years. He straight-setted Andy Murray in last year's finale, three years after topping Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the 2008 championship round Down Under.
The former No. 1 Clijsters, meanwhile, missed a majority of last season due to a series of ailments. But before old age started to set in, Kimmy nailed down her first-ever Aussie title by coming from behind to stop veteran Chinese slugger Li Na in three sets in the women's final.
The 28-year-old Clijsters was an Aussie runner-up to her fellow Belgian great Justine Henin in 2004.
Djokovic, who frustrates all with his brilliant return game, blew everyone away during his brilliant 2011 campaign, going 70-6 and claiming three major titles and an ATP-record five Masters championships in one season.
He'll head to Melbourne without the benefit of having played in an ATP- sanctioned event over the first two weeks of this newest season.
Clijsters was tuning up for the Aussie last week when she was forced to pull out in Brisbane due to a hip injury. The three-time U.S. Open champ was battling Slovakian Daniela Hantuchova in a semifinal matchup when she called it a week in the second set, after capturing the opening stanza.
Also on hand in Melbourne for the men will be other top contenders like former champions Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer and last year's runner-up Murray.
The 25-year-old and 10-time major champion Nadal was the runner-up to Djokovic in last year's Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals, and also gave way to the amazing Serb in no less than four Masters title tilts in 2011.
The 2009 Aussie titlist and reigning French Open champion Nadal has bowed out in the quarterfinals at Melbourne Park the last two years.
The 16-time major champion Federer is seeking his first Grand Slam title since claiming the 2010 Aussie Open. The sublime Swiss has failed to title in his last seven majors and missed out on a Grand Slam title last year for the first time since 2002.
The 30-year-old Federer owns an Open Era record-tying four Aussie Open titles (matching Andre Agassi) and was the runner-up to his great rival Nadal in Melbourne three years back.
Federer was sizzling hot to close out his 2011 season, however, winning his last 17 matches and seizing a trio of titles, one of which was the season- ending one at the prestigious ATP World Tour Finals in London.
The Fed, who was a semifinal loser last year in Melbourne, pulled out of an Aussie tuneup in Doha last week, as he was scheduled to meet the aforementioned Tsonga in a semi there when he decided to exit the draw with a nagging back injury. The 2011 French Open runner-up claims to be okay for Melbourne, as the pull-out in Doha was more precautionary than anything else.
The talented Murray is a three-time major finalist but has yet to breakthrough with that elusive first-ever Grand Slam title. He succumbed to Djokovic in last year's Aussie finale and fell to 0-9 in his career sets played in championship matches at Slams. Murray was also an Aussie finalist in 2010, but was swept out by the great Federer.
Murray opened his 2012 season in style by titling on a hardcourt in Brisbane last week and has a real chance at running the table in Melbourne, especially if any of the "Big Three" falter.
FYI: The last British male to win the Aussie Open was Fred Perry way back in 1934 (or 78 years ago).
The currently 12th-ranked Clijsters can expect challenges from a bevy of hungry women, especially current world No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki, Wimbledon champ Petra Kvitova, Wimbledon runner-up Maria Sharapova and 13-time Grand Slam winner Serena Williams.
Wozniacki, like Murray, is still searching for a Grand Slam championship. She was a semifinal loser in Melbourne a year ago, which marked her best-ever showing in Oz.
The likeable Dane was also a semifinalist at the U.S. Open last year, but hasn't reached a major final since the 2009 U.S. Open (her only one), where she lost to Clijsters. She's No. 1 in the world despite failing to ever capture a Grand Slam title and not reaching a major final in her last eight tries.
The left-handed Kvitova could be the woman to beat in Melbourne, as the Czech slugger closed out her 2011 campaign in red-hot fashion. She co-led the WTA (along with Wozniacki) with six titles last year and capped her season with 12 straight match wins, including a title at the exclusive season-ending WTA Championships in Istanbul.
Wozniacki and the 2011 Aussie quarterfinalist Kvitova were the top seeds at this week's final Aussie Open tuneup in Sydney, where Kvitova would overtake Wozniacki as the No. 1 player in the world with a title. Wozniacki was a quarterfinal loser Wednesday in Sydney, while Kvitova was into the semifinals at the time of this column.
The three-time major champion Sharapova captured her lone Aussie title four years ago, but hasn't gotten past the fourth round there since.
The 24-year-old world No. 4 Shaza was last year's Wimbledon runner-up to the powerful Kvitova, and also appeared in a French Open semi last spring.
Like Clijsters, the all-time great Serena will also be limping into Melbourne, as the American powerhouse pulled out of the tournament in Brisbane last week while citing an ankle injury. The former No. 1 star won her second-round match against young Serb Bojana Jovanovski in Brisbane, but then announced her exit from the draw later in the day.
Serena still hopes to play Down Under, but by no means has she suggested that it's 'all systems go' at this point.
The 30-year-old future Hall-of-Famer, currently ranked 13th in the world, hasn't won a major title since Wimbledon of 2010, as she's been slowed by a series of health issues since that particular championship.
The 2011 U.S. Open finalist is an Open Era-record five-time Aussie Open champ, including a big win there just two years ago, and a perfect 5-0 in her career finals in Melbourne.
There are plenty of other men who you would expect to have quality Aussie Opens, including world No. 5 David Ferrer, last week's Doha champion Tsonga and towering Argentine Juan Martin del Potro.
Ferrer is just about always in the mix, on any surface, while Tsonga boasts one of the best games on the tour and del Potro appears to be 100% healthy after coming all the way back from wrist surgery. Ferrer was an Aussie Open semifinalist a year ago; the world No. 6 Tsonga was a Wimbledon semifinalist last year and reached the Aussie final in '08; and the former top-four star and currently 11th-ranked Delpo is the top seed in Sydney this week.
The honourable mention guys for the first major of the year are big Czech Tomas Berdych, American Mardy Fish, Serbian Janko Tipsarevic, American Andy Roddick, and rising Canadian Milos Raonic, who tallied his second career ATP title last week by besting the world No. 9 Tipsarevic in a final in Chennai. Raonic is now up to No. 25 in the world, and if he can stay healthy his next stop will be the top 10 for sure.
There are some other women who have a shot to win it all in Melbourne, including world No. 3 Wimbledon semifinalist Victoria Azarenka, the French Open champion and 2011 Aussie runner-up Li, and U.S. Open titlist and heavy Aussie favourite Samantha Stosur, who has actually struggled to open this '12 campaign.
A dark horse on the women's side could be world No. 11 Francesca Schiavone, who's appeared in the last two French Open finals and won one. She's a battler on any surface.
Tenth-ranked German Andrea Petkovic, who quietly reached the quarterfinals at three of the four majors last year and typically celebrated with that tacky "Petko Dance," which, thankfully, she has decided to scrap for 2012, pulled out of the Aussie this week because of a back injury.
As for seven-time Grand Slam champ Venus Williams, she'll miss the Aussie as she continues to battle Sjogren's Syndrome, an incurable but treatable, autoimmune disease that causes fatigue and joint pain. The 31-year-old star missed most of 2011 while battling the condition and other injuries.