Australian Open 2012: Wozniacki and Kvitova will contest No1 spot
Marianne Bevis examines some of the storylines that follow the winding road south to the Australian Open in Melbourne
With the tennis telescope firmly focused on Australia for the first Grand Slam of 2012, it comes as no surprise that the stars of the courts are hitting the headlines with growing urgency.
What may be more of a surprise is that those headlines are being made not in Melbourne but 1,000km up the coast in Sydney. For here, rubbing shoulders in the schedule with the Australian Open, is a top-quality Premier event that boasts every woman in the top 12 bar two””and even they were in the news.
World No4 Maria Sharapova pulled out of the first event of the year in Brisbane last week to nurse the ankle injury she sustained in Tokyo last September, and has bypassed Sydney in favour of Melbourne Park for her final preparations. The former Australian champion””she won in 2008″”returned to something like her old form during 2011 and will be, subject to that ankle, one of the favourites for the title.
Also absent from Sydney is reigning Australian champion, Kim Clijsters, whose winning start in 2011 was quickly overtaken by a succession of injuries. An ankle stopped her from entering Wimbledon, a stomach tear from the US Open. She confessed to Donald McRae in The Guardian this week: “There have been many moments over the last year when I thought it was all over.”
Many began to agree with her when, last week in the Brisbane semi-final, she retired from a set up in her first tournament for five months. The cause proved to be a muscle spasm in her hip and she will be all present and correct to make the 2012 draw in Melbourne tomorrow.
But what promised to be the biggest coup for Sydney was an anticipated battle in the final for the No1 ranking between the top woman for 64 weeks, Caroline Wozniacki, and the most improved woman of the last 12 months and current No2, Petra Kvitova. Should Kvitova win the title, she would enter the Australian Open as the new No1.
The drama started before the two women even arrived in Sydney, for they faced one another in the team-based Hopman Cup in Perth last week. It was only their second meeting in 16 months, and Kvitova won””just as she had in their only 2011 meeting at the WTA Championships.
Once in Sydney, it looked as though neither woman would make it beyond their first match. Wozniacki battled past the woman who beat her at the same stage last year, Dominika Cibulkova, in a two hour 22 minute three-setter, while Kvitova took just three minutes fewer to win her three-setter.
Come the quarters, and the campaign for No1 took a dive for Wozniacki. After winning the first set against Agnieszka Radwanska, she became increasingly troubled by a wrist problem, sought medical treatment, and finally lost the match in tears. Both her No1 ranking and her participation in the Australian Open looked in jeopardy. Meanwhile, her rival powered to the quarters for the loss of just four games.
But a new day reconfigured the scene. Wozniacki was boosted by an MRI scan that showed no serious wrist damage while Kvitova was beaten in her semi despite winning the first set 6-1. There would be no change at the top until the Australian Open had run its course
And that seems entirely appropriate. Wozniacki and Kvitova ended 2011 with six titles apiece and deservedly filling the top two spots. Now, at the same age, both seem on the cusp of an important phase of their careers.
The former, who has performed at a constantly high level for more than two years to earn 18 titles, seeks that illusive Grand Slam. The latter, already with the kudos of the Wimbledon and end-of-year Championships, seeks the consistency to earn the No1 ranking by asserting her considerable talent throughout the year. The Dane reached the semis in Melbourne last year, the Czech reached the quarters. A final shoot-out between them in this year’s Australian final, with the No1 ranking at stake, would make a suitably dramatic denouement.
The Sydney tournament, however, has thrown into the headlines a few more women who could upset that Australian scenario.
In beating Kvitova, Na Li came back from a set and a break down to make her second consecutive final appearance in Sydney. Last year, she won the title and went on to reach the final of the Australian Open before winning her first Slam in Paris. After a dreadful falling off in form during the remainder of 2011, she went back to basics at her training camp in Munich””away from the pressures of stardom in her home country””and appears to have returned to Sydney like the Li of 12 months ago.
Conversely, a couple of rising stars in 2011 who looked set to make the big time this year have begun 2012 with health problems. Sabine Lisicki, who stormed back to a career-high ranking of 15 after injuries affected her promising early progress, retired in the quarters of Auckland last week with an abdominal strain and withdrew from Sydney, too.
Julia Goerges, a top-20 debutant in 2011, retired in the first round in Sydney with viral illness.
Meanwhile, two veterans of the tour have also come undone in Australia. Svetlana Kuznetsova retired in Sydney’s second round with heat illness and Flavia Pennetta did not even make it to the starting line having retired in the final of Auckland with a lower back injury. Thus far, however, all of these remain in the Australian draw.
So the stunning city of Sydney, generally seen by the rest of the world as Australia’s bride to Melbourne’s bridesmaid, has made a worthy stab at stealing the limelight from its Victorian sister again. Many of these storylines, and a few others, will certainly follow the winding road south to the Australian Open.
Will Clijsters be fit enough to defend her first Australian title or Sharapova strong enough to regain her crown of four years ago?
Will home favourite Sam Stosur bounce back from early exits in two straight Aussie tournaments to regain her US Open-winning form?
Can Serena Williams recover from the ankle sprain that forced her to withdraw after two rounds in Brisbane, her first matches since losing the US Open final?
And who, when all is done, will be No1 by the end of January?