Since Serena Williams won her first ‘happy Slam’ in 2003, her name has punctuated the honours board four more times, a record in the Open era. Only two other women playing in Melbourne this year have won this colour-drenched, fun-filled tournament: Maria Sharapova in 2008 and Victoria Azarenka for the last two years.
And the awful truth even for Sharapova is that she has barely made any inroads into the Williams game. She has managed only two wins in 17 dating back to 2004, since when Sharapova has won just three sets in 14 matches.
It is to Azarenka, then, that most eyes will turn for a sign that Williams is not invincible, for despite a similarly lop-sided head-to-head, the woman from Belarus won two of their four matches last year, and took the eventual champion to a final-set tiebreak in the US Open final.
But even to reach her allotted place in the final against Williams, Azarenka will most likely have to beat Sharapova in the semis—though their head-to-head is rather more evenly balanced.
But it is not just the draw that appears to be in Williams favour: It is her form and her achievements of the last 18 months that make her look as close to a certainty as this sport can offer.
Starting 2013 on the back of Wimbledon, Olympic, US Open and WTA Championship victories in 2012, she put together a lifetime-best 34-match streak through Miami, Charleston, Madrid, Rome and the French Open.
Then she made a near clean sweep in the US Open Series, winning Toronto, reaching the final in Cincinnati and defending her US crown.
As she headed towards her 32nd birthday later the same month, she was confirmed as the year-end No1 for the third time—even before she added the Beijing Premier and a fourth WTA Championships to her tally. 2013, then, proved to be a career best, with more titles—11—and more match-wins—78 for just four losses—than ever before.
Though the same age, 32, and with the same number of Grand Slams, 17, as Roger Federer, she looks the more likely of the two to equal Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova in fourth place on the list of most Grand Slam singles titles.
Last year, the remarkable American carried an ankle injury into the Australian quarters, losing to Sloane Stephens. This year, she looks as fit, fast, strong and confident as she did when she last won in Melbourne four years ago.
In her 20th year since turning pro and the 15th year since she won her first Grand Slam as a teenager in New York, can she put together another record-breaking season? And more particularly, can she break Azarenka’s two-year mastery of the Rod Laver arena?
Missing seeds: Maria Kirilenko (ranked 18), knee injury; Jamie Hampton (ranked 28), hip injury.
First-time seeds: Eugenie Bouchard (30); Bojana Jovanovski (33, late addition for Hampton).
Williams enters her 14th Australian Open at second on the all-time list of matches played at this Grand Slam. Four more, and she will overtake Lindsay Davenport to top the list—a tally that would also see her out-do the great Margaret Court, who currently has the most match wins in Australia: 60. So the second week for Williams would tick off two big records Down Under.
She could not have started her 2014 campaign any better, winning the Brisbane title for the second year in a row and, more impressively, beating Sharapova in the semis and Azarenka in the final.
It also took Williams to the second-longest winning streak of her career since losing to Azarenka in the finals of Cincinnati: 22 matches.
Williams first match is against 17-year-old wild card, Australian Ashleigh Barty—a David-and-Goliath contest if ever there was one. Her first seed is scheduled to be fellow 30-something Daniela Hantuchova, a semi-finalist in 2008, and it is she who provides the first-round competition for qualifying Briton Heather Watson, who is returning from an illness-hampered 2013.
Williams is destined to face a Grand Slam champion in the fourth round, as Sam Stosur and Ana Ivanaovic are scheduled to meet in Round 3. The latter won her first title in more than two years in Auckland last week. Stosur, though, has a difficult Round 2 match against this week’s Sydney champion, Tsvetana Pironkova—a first title.
The other eighth is also a taxing one for No7 seed Sara Errani, who has Julia Goerges in her opener, teenage star Bouchard in the third round, and then Roberta Vinci or Kirsten Flipkens—unless the top Briton Laura Robson goes on one of her giant-killing runs against Flipkens and then against the returning former world No2 Vera Zvonareva.
Matches to look out for: Goerges v Errani, R1; Robson v Flipkens, R1; Hantuchova v Watson, R1; Pironkova v Stosur, R2; Ivanovic v Stosur, R3; Bouchard v Errani, R3.
Li has had plenty of success in Australia, reaching the finals in 2013 and 2011. Indeed were it not for two serious falls in the final against Azarenka last year, she may have taken the title. She arrives this year with the Shenzhen title.
Things are straightforward in the early rounds: Her first seed is Lucie Safarova. Beyond that is a sequence of big-hitting women used to going deep in Grand Slams: Wimbledon finalist Sabine Lisicki—though Venus Williams, playing her 61st Grand Slam, could stir things up if she beats her first-round opponent, Ekaterina Makarova.
The survivor of Li and Lisicki—or Williams—faces a quarter-final against one of the big threats in the quarter, Petra Kvitova, who should have the beating of Flavia Pennetta. An alternative run to the quarters may come from Angelique Kerber, though she has some early challenges from wild card Jarmila Gajdosova—who has beaten her in both previous matches—and Elena Vesnina—one of the fastest rising women in the last 12 months.
Matches to look out for: Venus Williams v Makarova, R1; Bencic v Date-Krumm (youngest v oldest); Kerber v Gajdosova, R1; Li v Lisicki, R4.
Sharapova may have only won the Australian Open once but she’s also a two-time finalist and three more times reached the semis, including last year. But even with her three matches in Brisbane last week, she has played only four matches since her second-round exit at Wimbledon. She was sidelined in the interim for almost five months with shoulder injury.
So her first opponent, the power-player Bethanie Mattek-Sands, might be a testing opening opponent, especially as the American arrives from a good run in Sydney where she beat Bouchard and Radwanska.
Beyond that, though, Sharapova’s draw should be straightforward to the quarters: Seeds in her eighth are Alize Cornet, Dominika Cibulkova and Carla Suarrez Navarro.
There, she is seeded to meet Jelena Jankovic, and although the Serb had a resurgent season in 2013 and took Azarenka to three sets in last week’s Brisbane semis, she has not beaten the Russian since 2007. She also has a tricky route, not least in the fourth round where she is likely to find the winner between Simona Halep and Sorana Cirstea. The former won six titles last year to surge from 47 to 11 in the rankings, while Cirstea reached the Toronto final having beaten Li, Kvitova, Jankovic and Caroline Wozniacki.
Francesca Schiavone, who plays Cibulkova in the first round, will extend her unbroken Grand Slam streak to a record 54, but it seems unlikely she will upset this quarter of the draw: She has not beaten a top-20 player since Marion Bartoli at last year’s French Open.
Matches to look out for: Petkovic v Rybarikova, R1; Schiavone v Cibulkova, R1; Sharapova v Mattek-Sands, R1; Cirstea v Halep, R3.
Until her loss to Williams in the Brisbane final last week, Azarenka had won 24 matches in a row in Australia and, as one of the very few women to have beaten Williams—not once but twice—last year, she has every reason to be confident again in Melbourne.
But she has a tricky section to negotiate from the third round: the last-minute seed Jovanovski, who won two titles last autumn; then either former Grand Slam champion Svetlana Kuznetsova or last year’s semi opponent Stephens; and in the quarters, one of a range of long-standing rivals from Radwanska to Wozniacki to Kaia Kanepi.
The last of them, though, will be tested in her opener against debutant titlist Garbine Muguruza, winner in Hobart in just her second week back after ankle surgery last July: one to watch.
Radwanska has reached the quarters of the last three Australians, and will have to get by Kanepi or Wozniacki to do so again. Once again, though, it’s hard to see her breaking the quarter barrier if she faces the expected Azarenka. Radwanska has beaten the defending champion only once in 11 matches since 2009, and it was not in the 2012 Australian quarters.
Matches to look out for: Kanepi v Muguruza, R1; Stephens v Kuznetsova, R3; Azarenka v Jovanovski, R3; Wozniacki v Radwanska, R4
Final: Williams beats Azarenka
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BIOGRAPHY: Anthony Martial