Australian Open 2015: Williams marks 100 streak to progress with Wozniacki
Serena Williams joins Caroline Wozniacki and Victoria Azarenka in the second round of the Australian Open
Serena Williams, the 18-time Grand Slam champion, may be looking to open clear water between herself and Christ Evert and Martina Navratilova on the Major leader-board. She may also be looking to extend her own Open record of five Australian titles. But those are not the only fights on her hands in Melbourne this year.
Williams has three women chasing her for the No1 ranking: Simona Halep, Petra Kvitova and, breathing down her neck, the world No2 Maria Sharapova.
By the time Williams opened her campaign, she knew that all three of those rivals had sailed into the second round with ease. She also knew that she had a rather special achievement to defend. Thus far, she has made the fewest first-round exits of any active woman on the tour at any Grand Slam: just one, at Roland Garros in 2012, in 57 starts.
She was certainly the hot favourite to win her first match in her 15th appearance in Melbourne: remarkably, she played her first Open here 18 years ago. She opened against the 20-year-old No106, Alison van Uytvanck, and the first set suggested this could be the most ill-balanced match of the tournament so far.
For despite Williams’ form in her only outing this year, the Hopman Cup, looking patchy, she took just 21 minutes to take the first set 6-0, winning 26 of the 37 points. In fairness, she had not needed to find her best, and hit only six winners against the error-strewn Belgian, and that caught up with Williams in the second set.
Van Uytvanck upped her level and Williams took a while to respond, looking sluggish and unfocused. Not that the Belgian worked any break chances, but neither did Williams, who time and again roared herself on to find her trademark aggression.
At last, literally, she broke at 5-4 to take the set and match in just over an hour. Williams had needed more first-strike points, and that is what she produced: 14 winners and nine aces. But she knew she had been in a battle: “I thought she played really well. She has a good serve and a good first stroke, which is really what a lot of the younger players are doing now.
“I felt OK. As always, I had the jitters going out in the first match of a Grand Slam. So, yeah, it’s never super easy to be the one that everyone wants to beat. But I definitely think I can improve a tremendous amount.”
She will need to, as she is to take on a former world No2 coming back to some form after years in doldrums with injury, Vera Zvovareva. Williams admitted:
“It’s going to be tough. She does so many things well. She’s on the way back. I know she’s been fighting and playing really hard. I have to be ready. I have to come out of the gates ready to go and be the best I can be.”
Things don’t get any easier in perhaps the toughest quarter in the draw. In particular, Williams’ friend, the No8 seed Caroline Wozniacki, beat Taylor Townsend, 7-6(1), 6-2, to set up a nightmare of a second-round match against fellow former world No1 and two-time Australia champion, Victoria Azarenka.
The winner could face Williams in the quarter-finals.
Azarenka is unseeded after months of injury problems, but looked good in beating Sloane Stephens, who she met here for the third year in a row, 6-3, 6-2.
Wozniacki and Azarenka have only played once in almost four years, and that a win for Azarenka, but the former champion was pragmatic about her draw: “Being unseeded, it’s not a surprise that I have a tough draw or tough opponents in the early rounds. I just need to go through that, just accept the challenges.
“[Wozniacki] showed some great tennis at the end of last year, and I know she’s very dangerous. We always have tough matches. I just need to focus on myself, prepare the best I can and just compete. That’s my key word for this tournament: compete.”
In the other quarter, there were also few upsets. No4 seed Kvitova overcame qualifier Richel Hogenkamp, 6-1, 6-4, while her scheduled quarter-final opponent, No6 seed Agnieszka Radwanska, sailed through, 6-3, 6-0. Each took little more than an hour.
The two seeds joining Jelena Jankovic on the plane home were No12 Flavia Pennetta and No13 Andrea Petkovic.
That has opened up this section for No18 Venus Williams who, at 34, is the oldest seed in the draw. The elder Williams has yet to lose a match this year, winning in Auckland with a three-set victory over Wozniacki, and she advanced to the second round with a 6-2, 6-2 win over Marie-Teresa Torro-Flor.
Venus is playing in her 65th Grand Slam main draw, the third most in the Open Era and just two fewer than Martina Navratilova. After years marginalised by illness, she now has a chance to reach the second week for the first time in almost four years.
But to end where we started, with her sister. Serena’s grip on No1 may be precarious: If Sharapova wins the title, she will automatically take the top spot with it. But Serena has already reached a significant ranking milestone: 100 consecutive weeks at No1, something achieved by only three other women. If she wins her next match in Melbourne, Sharapova will have to reach the final to stand a chance. This race could go all the way to the title.