Australian Open 2012: Clijsters, Williams, Sharapova target title

Marianne Bevis looks at the women left battling it out at the first Grand Slam of the year in Melbourne

kim clijsters
Kim Clijsters is the defending champion in Melbourne Photo: Mirsasha, via Flickr

kim clijsters

With so much talk of the “big four” in men’s tennis—can Novak Djokovic repeat his record-breaking 2011 antics, will Rafael Nadal overcome injury to win a second Australian title, could Roger Federer, at 30, win his first Slam since he won in Melbourne in 2010, and will this be “the one” to break Andy Murray’s Slam duck—it’s easy to forget that a similar battle is raging in the women’s draw.

While the top four men have all progressed to the last 16 with barely a hiccup—only one set dropped between them so far—the top four women, Caroline Wozniacki, Petra Kvitova, Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova, have done just the same and their stakes are just as high. Any of them could also become No1 in the world on the back of their performance in Melbourne.

Where the men have former No1s and Grand Slam winners in their rear-view mirrors—the likes of Lleyton Hewitt and Juan Martin del Potro have joined the last-16 party—the women face even more formidable competition in the shape of defending champion and four-time Slam winner Kim Clijsters and five-time Australian winner and 13-time Slam titlist Serena Williams.

Time, then, to catch up with some of the wonderful women of Oz.

Caroline Wozniacki, Seed one

A semifinalist in Melbourne last year, Wozniacki’s No1 ranking has been under threat since the tour got under way on the first day of 2012. She remains in search of her first Grand Slam title despite 67 weeks at the top, and she next plays another former No1 without a Slam, Jankovic. Their matches have always been tight but Wozniacki has won the last three.

Petra Kvitova, Seed two

Wimbledon champion Kvitova came to Melbourne as many people’s favourite for the title and to take the No1 ranking. She played a nervy, error-strewn match in Round Two against Carla Suarez Navarro, dropping the second set, but was back on form in the third round before Maria Kirilenko was forced to retire at 6-0, 1-0.
She is guaranteed the world’s top ranking should she win at Melbourne Park and is in the most benign segment of the draw, with only Ivanovic, her next opponent, seeded.

Victoria Azarenka, Seed three

The most recent Premier winner on the tour in Sydney, Azarenka is one of the form players of the moment, and has dropped only eight games in three rounds. She faces unseeded Benesova for a quarterfinal place, a woman she has beaten in straight sets in all three of their previous meetings, including twice last year. The constantly improving Belarusian, who plays at her best on hard courts, has the makings of a Djokovic-style breakthrough this year and should progress with ease to face Radwanska or Goerges.

Maria Sharapova, Seed four

Sharapova, who won the last of her three Grand Slam titles in Melbourne four years ago, has conceded just five games in three matches. Her biggest test was against US Open semifinalist, Angelique Kerber, in the third round: She beat her in 87 minutes, 6-1, 6-2. Sharapova played no warm-up matches prior to Melbourne due to an ankle injury. Indeed she has played only five matches since Flavia Pennetta shocked her in the third round of the US Open in early September, but she is once again playing impressive and determined tennis. She next faces Sabine Lisicki, who she beat in the Wimbledon semis, and if successful, poses a dream semi against Williams.

Agnieszka Radwanska, Seed eight

So low is the profile of last year’s quarterfinalist—Radwanska lost to eventual champion Clijsters—that she may be the highest ranked player not to headline a report on the tournament’s website. Yet she recovered from a difficult first-round three-setter, in windy conditions, to beat big-hitting Bethanie Mattek-Sands before dismissing two more opponents in short order. Last week, she beat Wozniacki and took the first set, 6-1, from Azarenka in Sydney before losing in the semis, and that after one of her best ever runs at the end of 2011. If the conditions stay calm to suit her tactical style of play, she will next face Azarenka again in the quarters after beating Goerges in straight sets.

Jelena Jankovic, Seed 13

A 2008 semi-finalist and former No1, Jankovic has dropped only 10 games to reach Round Three in the singles but now faces Wozniacki, a not dissimilar player, in Round Four. Based on previous matches, it will be a close one. The Serb, who is one of two women left in the draw to have won the junior Australian title (Azarenka is the other), is also playing mixed doubles with Bernard Tomic: They won their first round match against an Australian pairing, 6-1, 6-3.

Kim Clijsters, Seed 11

In what Clijsters has said is her last year on the tour, the popular Belgian opened the defence of her title with negligible match play. She retired injured in the Brisbane semis this month having played only one match since last June—due to other injury problems. But Clijsters has looked increasingly impressive since dismissing a qualifier in the opening round and particularly in beating Daniela Hantuchova, 6-3, 6-2, in the third. She emerged victorious from a repeat of last year’s final against Na Li in three sets to reach the last eight.

Serena Williams, Seed 12

Five-time Australian winner from 11 visits, Williams has a 51-6 record in Melbourne. Her third-round win over Greta Arn—in under an hour—took her to fourth in the all-time list of Grand Slam match wins in the Open Era: 211. Only Martina Navratilova, 306, Chris Evert, 299, and Steffi Graf, 278, have more. And she passed another landmark during her second match, scoring her 500th career victory. Remarkable records aside, Williams is playing only her second tournament since losing the final of the US Open, which was itself one of only six events she played last year. After just two matches in Brisbane, she pulling out with an ankle injury but has shown no signs of a problem in Melbourne so far, losing only 11 games in three matches. She should next beat the unseeded Makarova to set up a blockbuster quarterfinal against Sharapova. As a side note, Williams planned to play mixed doubles with Andy Roddick until he was injured in the singles.

Ana Ivanovic, Seed 21

Ivanovic is one of the remaining seeds in the draw who already boasts a Grand Slam title, the French Open in 2008. She reached the Australian final in the same year. Ivanovic has begun to show promising signs of a return to form after several seasons in the doldrums. She has worked intensively on her serve since taking up with a new coach after Wimbledon last year and has dropped only 15 games so far this week. However, she now faces Kvitova for a quarterfinal place, perhaps a step too far so soon in the Serb’s comeback.

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