This year's first major brought every emotion worthy of a true classic. From heroic feats to legendary meltdowns, players — and ball kids — at the 2012 Australian Open went all out. Here are our top 10 Australian Open moments. — Brian Webber
Getty ImagesScott Barbour
Next American hope?
The Australian Open was extremely challenging for American players. Serena Williams had the best showing of any competitor from the US — and the former world No. 1 made it only to the round of 16 before she was upset by Ekaterina Makarova. Taylor Townsend, however, offered a glimmer of hope for American tennis fans looking for better future results. The 15-year-old won a pair of junior titles in Melbourne. Townsend became the first American to win the girls' singles title at the Australian Open since 1989. The Georgia native also teamed with Gabrielle Andrews to capture the Australian Open junior girls doubles title. A myriad of players have been unable to translate their junior success onto the main tour, but Townsend's big game and variety on the court may ensure that she becomes more than a historical footnote.
Getty ImagesMark Dadswell
If a ball boy or a bill girl makes headlines, it has to be for something special or surreal. A youngster took center stage when she was called upon to remove a cricket from the court at Rod Laver Arena. Lleyton Hewitt was taking on Cedrik-Marcel Stebe when a big bug ran across the court. Rather than taking care of the insect himself, the German called on a ball girl to remove the cricket before the match could be resumed. The girl overcame her fears and scooped up the offending insect. The bug eventually slipped out of her hands — surviving to be a part of another match in Melbourne. The ball girl received a huge cheer when the incident was replayed on video boards at the stadium.
Still going ...
John Isner's name will live forever in the annals of tennis history for his unforgettable match with Nicolas Mahut at Wimbledon in 2010. That epic encounter took more than 11 hours to complete, with Isner prevailing in the fifth set 70-68. Just like Wimbledon, the Australian Open doesn't utilize a fifth-set tiebreaker. That gave Isner another chance to have a marathon match in a Grand Slam tournament. This time he squared off with David Nalbandian, with the players combining for a match that featured a 99-minute final set. Isner outlasted Nalbandian 10-8 in a fifth set filled with controversy. Chair umpire Kader Nouni overruled a linesman who had called out an Isner ace. That proved to be an inaccurate call by Nouni, who refused to allow Nalbandian to use Hawkeye video replay to challenge the call. Although Isner was knocked out in the following round by Feliciano Lopez, the American proved that he's still capable of producing major drama in major events.
Getty ImagesMark Dadswell
Marcos Baghdatis is best known for his improbable run to the Australian Open final in 2006. But now his resume includes one of tennis' strangest meltdowns. In a match between Baghdatis and Stanislas Wawrinka, the Cypriot wasn't pleased at his level of play and vented his frustration during a changeover. Baghdatis repeatedly smashed one his tennis rackets on the playing surface, but he was far from done. Baghdatis took a new racket out of his bag and destroyed that one, as well. Then he raised the ante by smashing two more rackets that were still wrapped in plastic. When he was done losing his mind, Baghdatis returned to court to lose the match in four sets. As a result of destroying the four rackets, Baghdatis received a $1,250 fine and earned immortality on the internet as his meltdown became a viral sensation.
Paes it forward
The Bryan brothers were hoping to add to the tennis legacy in Melbourne by capturing a record 12th Grand Slam championship, moving past the Australian tandem of Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde for the most doubles major titles in history. But Leander Paes was able to create some personal history of his own in the doubles final. The veteran from India teamed with Czech Republic's Radek Stepanek to beat the Bryans in straight sets to win the Australian Open championship. The victory allowed Paes to complete the career Grand Slam in doubles. The win marked the Bryan brothers' first loss at the Aussie Open since the 2008 quarterfinals. Paes came close to leaving Australia with another Grand Slam title but lost with Elena Vesnina in the mixed doubles final.
Getty ImagesCameron Spencer
American tennis fans have been grumbling that no male player from the US has captured a major title since Andy Roddick won the US Open in 2003, but Aussie fans have been waiting even longer. The last Australian man to win the Australian Open was Mark Edmondson in 1976. The Aussie crowds in Melbourne had plenty to cheer about during the fortnight this year, however. Bernard Tomic (right photo) validated his run to the quarterfinals at Wimbledon last year by reaching the round of 16 at the Aussie Open. Although Tomic was beaten soundly by Roger Federer, there is little doubt that the Aussie teenager has star potential. Lleyton Hewitt (left photo) has moved into the twilight of his career, but the former world No. 1 turned back the clock in the first major event of the year. Hewitt overcame the big-hitting Canadian Milos Raonic to advance to the fourth round, as well. Hewitt was able to take a set off of Novak Djokovic in his loss, earning a huge ovation from his legion of fans.
Since the Australian Open bills itself as the "Grand Slam of Asia/Pacific," perhaps it was fitting that a player from Asia made a major impact in the men's draw. Kei Nishikori became the first Japanese man to reach the quarterfinals at a Grand Slam tournament in the Open Era. Nishikori's signature win came over No. 6 seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the fourth round after five tough sets. Nishikori is one of the best-conditioned players on the ATP World Tour, and his fitness continues to pay dividends. He is 5-1 in his career in five-set matches. By making it to the quarterfinals in Melbourne, Nishikori jumped to a new career-high ranking of No. 20 in the world. That's the highest ranking a Japanese player has ever held in men's tennis.
Getty ImagesMark Dadswell
Kim Clijsters is so beloved in Melbourne that the Belgian has been nicknamed "Aussie Kim." Clijsters produced another memorable chapter in her Australian Open career with a brilliant comeback against Li Na in the fourth round. While the defending Aussie Open champion twisted her ankle in the opening set, Clijsters once again revealed her toughness and played through the pain. Li held four match points in the second-set tiebreaker, but Clijsters was able to escape and force a deciding third set. Clijsters' dramatic 4-6, 7-6, 6-4 victory brought the crowd to its feet at Rod Laver Arena. Although Clijsters was defeated by the eventual champion Victoria Azarenka in the semifinals, the former world No. 1 played with the heart of a champion in what may have been her final appearance at the Australian Open.
Getty ImagesCameron Spencer
Victoria Azarenka left little doubt about who was the best women's player "Down Under" with her convincing 6-3, 6-0 win over Maria Sharapova in the singles final. Azarenka made the most of her first appearance in a Grand Slam championship match by winning the first major title of her career. The Belarussian started 2012 by winning a WTA title in Sydney and maintained her momentum during the two weeks in Melbourne. Azarenka is now riding an 11-match winning streak and has vaulted to No. 1 in the rankings. Some critics have been less than enthusiastic about Azarena's shrieking while she's in the midst of a rally, but her play in Australia spoke volumes and Azarenka's talent and tenacity.
Getty ImagesClive Brunskill
He's no Djok
If you ask five tennis pundits to name the best match of the Open Era, you might get five different answers. But there's no question that the match between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic will now be on that list. The defending champion outlasted the Spaniard in the longest Grand Slam singles final ever. The competitors needed 5 hours, 53 minutes to crown a champion in a five-set marathon filled with twists and turns. A rain delay in the fourth set allowed the players a brief respite while the roof was closed at Rod Laver Arena, and they responded with a sensational fifth set. Djokovic has now beaten Nadal in seven consecutive finals, allowing the Serbian to become the fifth man since 1968 to win three consecutive major titles. Djokovic has captured five Grand Slam titles in his outstanding career and will be trying to complete the "Nole Slam" with a win at Roland Garros in May. You can bet Nadal will be looking for some retribution in Paris.