When it comes to women’s tennis, the story has more often been one of change, and of the lack of dominance at the top of the game.
Unlike men’s tennis this century, some women have managed to top the rankings without winning a Grand Slam—Caroline Woznicki, Dinara Safina, Jelena Jankovic. And there are no fewer than 10 Grand Slam winners in this year’s Australian Open draw, six of them with just a single title, five of them never reaching the No1 ranking.
And yet of the 34 titles owned by those 10 champions, 26 were won by just three: Serena Williams, her sister Venus, and Maria Sharapova. And since Venus first became No1 11 years ago, all three have been a constant presence both at the top of the rankings and on the Grand Slam stage—and that is despite periods away from the game with illness, injury or surgery for each of them.
On the men’s side, too, much is made of age and of signs of diminishing powers: Can Federer, at 31, win another Slam or again reach No1? Can Nadal overcome injury and reassert his place at the top? Can Del Potro return to Slam glory?
Far less often is Serena Williams’ age perceived as a barrier—yet she is the same age as Federer, and Venus is 32. And despite long periods away from the sport, Serena has won only two fewer singles Slams than Federer, plus 15 doubles titles.
Meanwhile, Sharapova, at 25 the same age as Djokovic, has won four Majors compared with his five. She also won her first four years before the Serb and her last more recently. Along the way, she has also come back from shoulder surgery.
There is another name in the women’s mix, one who knocked at the door of the rankings and the Slams for some time—much as Murray did. And like Murray, 2012 was the year Victoria Azarenka finally made her mark, winning the Australian Open and taking the No1 ranking at the same time. She has not given up the top spot since, consolidating her position with a semi finish at Wimbledon and a runners-up place at the US Open.
It is perhaps fitting, then, that the Australian Open could bring a change of No1 not just on the men’s side, should Federer win the title and Djokovic lose in the quarter-finals. There is also a three-way contest for the top of the women’s rankings.
Defending champion Azarenka has to reach the final, while Sharapova has to make the final four to keep her chances alive, but current No3 Serena Williams will rise to No1 if she reaches the final regardless of Azarenka’s and Sharapova’s results, and could do so even if she fell short of the final, depending on the results of her rivals.
And on their form so far in Australia, it is impossible to call between them.
If an injured collarbone and lack of match practice seemed to be problems for Sharapova, a truly intimidating performance so far in Melbourne has dispelled such thoughts. She has reached the third round without dropping a single set, expending just 55 and 47 minutes in each of the first two rounds.
Serena Williams took only 54 minutes to win her first match, 6-0, 6-0, and that included several minutes on court recovering from a tumble and twisted ankle. She finished the match with 18 winners to just one from her opponent, winning 52 of the match’s 72 points.
She later assured fans that her ankle would be fine and, since her next opponent, Magdalena Rybarikova, took 3hrs 20mins to win her opener, Williams may well ‘do a Sharapova’ and dismiss the Slovak woman in very short order.
However, the most highly anticipated match of the third round will pitch Sharapova against a woman who has long been such a part of the elite in women’s tennis, Venus Williams. The American, playing in her 13th Australian Open and a finalist 10 years ago, climbed to a seeding of 26 from 135 at the start of 2012, returning from a long absence due to the debilitating Sjogren’s Syndrome.
Venus Williams immediately made her mark in Melbourne. She lost the first game in her opening match against Galina Voskoboeva, only to win the next 12, taking an hour to win. Then she played the 41-ranked Alizé Cornet and beat her, 6-3, 6-3, in 77 minutes, dominating by 17 winners to five.
Williams has played Sharapova seven times before, and discounting the Russian’s win in Rome last year—Williams was barely back to fitness and has never favoured clay—they are all square. A few months ago, it was hard to imagine Williams giving the French Open titlist, Sharapova, any real contest as she entered her 20th year on the professional tour. Now, their meeting has the look of an irresistible force meeting an immovable object.
Amongst this clutch of unstoppable women, Azarenka has something to prove. Still with just a single Major to her name, a second title in Australia would prove her potential also to be around for the long haul. She had a difficult opener against the No49-ranked Monica Niculescu but dropped only four games. She has also seen three seeds fall from her quarter, including No7 Sara Errani.
Two more women, the next pair in the rankings, are proving their credentials thus far, too. No4 Agnieszka Radwanska is looking to take one step further, having reached her first Grand Slam final at Wimbledon last summer: She took a set from Serena Williams on that occasion. Radwanska already has two titles this year plus two convincing straight-sets wins in Melbourne.
No5 Angelique Kerber was ranked 30 here last year, but reached the quarters in Paris and the semis at Wimbledon, and continued her formidable form with impressive wins in her first two matches, conceding only 10 games in all.
While a handful of former Grand Slammers outside the top three are also showing their class when it counts—Na Li is into the third round without losing a set, Svetlana Kuznetsova, back from injury, dropped only three games on her way to the second round, and Petra Kvitova and Ana Ivanovic are still in contention though each with a dropped a set—a couple of others have fallen by the wayside.
Francesca Schiavone was a late bloomer, winning the French Open just short of her 30th birthday, and she is taking part in her 50th consecutive Grand Slam. But she has been unable to hit the heights of 2010 and, now unseeded, gave Kvitova a run for her money but lost the deciding set in her first-round match.
Home favourite Sam Stosur, ranked No9 and playing in her 11th Australian Open, continued her poor run in Melbourne, where her win-loss record has been just 14 to 10. Her preparation this year was again discouraging—minor foot surgery and then losses in the first round of both Brisbane and Sydney—and she lost to Jie Zheng in the second round.
There are, then, before Round 2 has even been completed, a diminishing number of realistic threats to the established order, to the dominance of the top three.
Those threats come largely from within the top five and from former Grand Slam winners. Maybe Kvitova can halt Serena Williams if she reaches the quarters, but can she then stop Azarenka as well? Li and Radwanska are scheduled to compete for a semi place, but is either likely to beat Sharapova? It’s hard to see.
Another possibility—as unlikely as it seemed a year ago—is that Sharapova could be taken out by the oldest champion in the draw, Venus Williams.
Either way, it all has a very familiar ring.
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BIOGRAPHY: Eric Bailly