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Australian Open Contenders Capsules (WTA)

Jan 6th 2014

The usual suspects will vie for the women’s title at the 2014 Australian Open, much as is the case among the men.  The world No. 1 and the two-time defending champion join a former champion and a two-time finalist at the event at the vanguard of the pack.

Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka

Serena Williams:  If any minds needed refreshing, the world No. 1 refreshed them in Brisbane last week.  Without even finding her best tennis there, Serena dismissed leading rivals Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova in straight sets.  Those victories ran her record against them to a combined 29-5, evocative of her dominance over the rest of the WTA elite.  Serena has not lost to any woman in the current top 10 at a major in nearly a decade, and no player (man or woman) has enjoyed greater success at the Australian Open.  Six of her 17 major titles have come Down Under, although she has not climbed the champion’s podium since 2010.  Sidelined by injury in 2011, Serena suffered pre-semifinal setbacks at the hands of Ekaterina Makarova in 2012 and Sloane Stephens in 2013.  That trend points to the only reasons why she might not add a seventh Australian Open crown this year.  Serena’s 32-year-old body must stay healthy throughout the rigorous fortnight, and she must bring as keen a focus to the first week as she does to the later rounds.  If she does, any tournament that she plays is hers to lose.

Victoria Azarenka:  The two-time defending champion at the Australian Open has established a career-long pattern of fast starts and slow finishes in seasons.  Azarenka usually emerges from the offseason with her fragile frame refreshed, and the medium-speed hard court in Melbourne rewards a playing style similar to four-time men’s champion Novak Djokovic.  Like Serena, she has excelled at finding ways to win even when producing fallible tennis, as she did en route to the US Open final last fall.  Azarenka defeated the world No. 1 twice on outdoor hard courts last year, while she has won her last six meetings with Sharapova on that surface and five of her last six overall from world No. 3 Li Na.  Still, her serve will remain a liability against elite returners even on days when she avoids costly double faults, and she has yet to prove that she can defeat Serena at a major.  Shouldering the pressure of defending her Australian Open title last year, Azarenka overcame a hostile crowd and her own nerves.  She will need that steeliness again to record the first women’s three-peat there since Martina Hingis in 1997-99.

Li Na

Maria Sharapova:  Nobody bounces back from injury more adroitly than Sharapova, but few have gained more experience at doing it.  Such was the challenge confronting her when 2014 began.  Sharapova had played only three matches between the 2013 Roland Garros final and last week’s tournament in Brisbane, so her semifinal result and valiant effort against Serena boded well for Melbourne.  Two years ago, she reached the Australian Open final without match preparation as she recovered from an ankle injury.  The high bounce on these courts has spurred Sharapova to some of her most spectacular fortnights, including the 2008 title with three straight-sets victories over top-five opponents.  In recent years, she has been either boom or bust Down Under, as last year’s Australian Open showed.  Sharapova reeled off her first 28 games of the tournament and dropped only nine en route to the semifinals—where she won just four from Li.  While her non-rivalry with Serena looks like a lost cause, Sharapova does hold the recent momentum against Azarenka after winning their only 2013 meeting.  New coach Sven Groeneveld is unlikely to affect her fortunes much for better or for worse.

Li Na:  A little like 2013 men’s runner-up Andy Murray, 2013 women’s runner-up Li has scored some of her greatest triumphs and suffered some of her most painful disappointments on Rod Laver Arena.  The Australian Open has proved the most consistent among her majors, perhaps in part because it lies the closest to her home.  Initially breaking through there with a semifinal in 2010, Li has reached the final in two of the last three years.  She has knocked off plenty of elite opponents there from Sharapova and Azarenka to Agnieszka Radwanska, a then-healthy Venus Williams, and the then-No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki.  Li brings ample momentum to Melbourne after reaching the final at each of her last two tournaments, including the year-end championships.  Injuries have plagued the Chinese veteran, limiting her to seven career titles, and she will know that little time remains to collect a second major as she approaches her 32nd birthday.  Coach Carlos Rodriguez has instilled the same aggressive mentality in Li that he brought to Justine Henin, which should help her to shorten points and conserve energy.

Petra Kvitova:  The only other major champion in the top 10, the 2011 Wimbledon winner began to resurface last fall after a sophomore slump.  Kvitova claimed the title at the Premier Five event in Tokyo and reached a semifinal at the year-end championship with victories over Agnieszka Radwanska and Angelique Kerber.  She has not yet played a WTA event this year but looked crisp in sweeping her matches at the Hopman Cup.  Winless against Serena, Kvitova has not defeated Sharapova since her magical fortnight at Wimbledon other than by retirement.  But she might strike fear into Azarenka, whom she throttled on all surfaces in 2011 before a two-year hiatus suspended their rivalry.  What might strike fear into the massive ball-striker from the Czech Republic, arguably the best server in the top 10 outside Serena?  A semifinalist at the 2012 Australian Open, Kvitova has struggled with breathing issues in the heat and allowed herself to bog down in grueling first-week epics at majors.  Having lost one of those matches at Melbourne last year, she must realize that she cannot afford too many of them.

The rest:  Probably the best active player never to win a major, Agnieszka Radwanska let a golden opportunity escape her at Wimbledon last summer.  She has not advanced past the quarterfinals at any of the other majors, unable to dull the weapons of more powerful opponents with her counterpunching finesse.  By contrast, resurgent veteran Jelena Jankovic has earned her best results at majors on hard courts.  The 2008 US Open finalist reached a semifinal in Melbourne that year before fading sharply until last fall, when she regained the top 10 behind an impressive second half.  Jankovic still must prove that she translate success from non-majors to majors, however, something that fellow counterpuncher Caroline Wozniacki has not done.  A point short of the Australian Open final three years ago, the former No. 1 will hope that new coach Thomas Hogstedt can revive her flagging confidence.  She has won just three titles in the last two years and fallen before the quarterfinals at seven straight majors.  Ranked one spot ahead of Wozniacki, world No. 9 Angelique Kerber has produced her least impressive results of the four majors in Melbourne.  And clay specialist Sara Errani appears to have lost the appetite that forges an elite contender.