Williams, Halep, Sharapova, Azarenka launch 2016 campaigns in Australia

Serena Williams has been the dominant player of the last four years, and remains at the top of the rankings heading into 2016

Six times, across a dozen years, Serena Williams has been the Australian Open champion, and during that span, only two active players have broken her stranglehold at the first Grand Slam of the year.

Maria Sharapova won in 2008—and has been a finalist on three further occasions—while Victoria Azarenka won the title in 2012 and 2013. And this trio throws up some of most intriguing storylines in the women’s game for 2016.

History beckons for Williams

Williams has been the dominant player of the last four years, and remains, at the age of 34, at the top of the rankings by a country mile after almost three straight years at No1. During that time, she has added eight Grand Slams to reach 21, claiming three of them during 2015.

She went 53-3 for the year, yet many of Williams’ wins were far from easy: She battled through many three-setters, many from a set down, in some of the gutsiest tennis of her career. Twice she did so during the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the US Open, but also during Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid, Toronto, Cincinnati, in Fed Cup… and nowhere did her will to win shine more brightly than at Roland Garros. Three times in a row she battled back from a set down, and again survived three setters in the semis and the final.

By the time she lost her semi at the US Open, Williams could find no more—and played no more, even bypassing the Singapore WTA Finals. So aside from some light competition during December’s IPTL, her appearance at the upcoming Hopman Cup will be her first in almost four months—and her only competitive tennis before her Australian Open defence.

It is probably safe to say that the eyes of the tennis world will be glued to this remarkable woman throughout 2016, because not only is she defending three Majors but also, come August, Olympic gold. She is going for history as she attempts to break the Grand Slam singles records of Steffi Graf and Margaret Court—22 and 24 respectively. Who, then, can halt a Williams gold-rush?

The Sharapova question

For Sharapova, the task is especially big—and especially important—if she has ambitions to reach the very top a decade after she first made No1 and three and half years after she last claimed the top spot with her 2012 French Open title.

Not since the end of 2004 has Sharapova beaten Williams in 17 attempts. Indeed she has only won three sets since taking Williams to three in their 2005 Australian Open semi-final.

Like Williams, the current world No4 played little part in much of the latter part of 2015, missing the entire US Open Series with injury. In her first match since Wimbledon, she also retired in Round 1 of Wuhan, but did return to reach the semis of the WTA Finals, and went on to win two tough matches in the Fed Cup final, though Russia eventually lost out to the Czech Republic.

It has, indeed, been a busy end-of-year for Sharapova, including the IPTL in Japan and an exhibition weekend in Los Angeles. But she will surely be both fresh and optimistic when she hits the Brisbane courts this weekend as defending champion and in Melbourne where she was runner-up last year. And with wins over No2 Simona Halep, No5 Agnieszka Radwanska and No6 Petra Kvitova in the closing weeks of 2015, maybe she will be able to steal a march on an undercooked Williams.

Or perhaps it will be Azarenka…

… who beat the Russian in their only previous meeting in Australia, the 2012 final. And although Sharapova has got the better of Azarenka in recent contests, the only other active Australia champion showed a gradual return to form during 2015 after a succession of injury-affected seasons.

During the early months of 2015, Azarenka was a dangerous unseeded player until eventually earning a seeding of 27 for the French Open. But what Azarenka continued to have in her favour compared with Sharapova is her record against Williams.

The Belarusian’s third-round contest against the American at Roland Garros was one of the women’s matches of the year, and she also took the first set off the world No1 before losing in three at Madrid and Wimbledon.

Of concern must be Azarenka’s retirement with a leg injury in her last event of 2015, Wuhan, but her record in Australia, where she has also won in Sydney and Brisbane, suggests she remains one of the few who can threaten Williams.

She is currently ranked 22, and thus unseeded in Brisbane among a hot field that boasts three of the top four. Her biggest test comes almost immediately, as Halep’s likely first opponent—and she could meet Sharapova in the semis. And what about a first meeting with the big-hitting new star on the block, Garbine Muguruza in the final? Brisbane promises much.

Aspiring Radwanska

The popular Pole seemed all at sea during the early months of 2015, even with Martina Navratilova as her coach. By the time they parted ways in the summer, Radwanska had dropped outside of the top 10 for the first time since 2011, and as late as the US Open was ranked 15. But she has always found the Asian swing to her liking and surged to the Tokyo and Tianjin titles, via the Beijing semis, and won her a career-best title at the WTA Finals.

Now ranked No5, the craft player par excellence has been honing her tactics and fitness at the IPTL and, this week, a heavyweight exhibition event in Thailand. She is also, of course, a former Grand Slam finalist, reached the semis of the Australian Open in 2014—making the quarters four further times—and is playing two pre-Melbourne events, in Shenzhen and Sydney. In her pursuit of the ultimate prize, a Major title, Radwanska is leaving no stone unturned.

Don’t forget those other Major champions

No4 Kvitova and a resurgent No7 Venus Williams are the only other Grand Slam champions in the top 15 (Ana Ivanovic is No16, Svetlana Kuznetsova No25, Sam Stosur No27 and Francesca Schiavone No114).

Kvitova, newly engaged, has been a semi-finalist in Melbourne, won three titles in 2015, and reached the final of the WTA Finals. She also arrives in Shenzhen for her 2016 opener as winner for the fourth time of the Fed Cup. Always unpredictable, often thrilling, she can never be discounted—though if the weather in Melbourne is extreme, she may be more disadvantaged than most.

As for 35-year-old Venus Williams, who might have ended her career when diagnosed with Sjogren’s Syndrome in 2011—she ended that year at No103—she has just completed her best season since then: three titles, a quarter run at the Australian and US Opens, and her highest year-end ranking since 2010. Maybe another Grand Slam is too much to expect, but another WTA title? More than likely.

Chasing pack: Halep, Muguruza, Bencic—and Bouchard

Halep once again put a solid year behind her, with titles in Indian Wells and Dubai, finals in Toronto and Cincinnati, and her second straight quarter run at the Australian Open plus a semi finish at the US Open. Still just 24, and with another switch of coach to Darren Cahill, this super-fit and determined player will undoubtedly threaten the best again in 2016.

Just 22 years of age, Muguruza has reached No3 in the world and a Wimbledon final, and really impressed at her first WTA Finals. Tall, aggressive, powerful and smart, there are few who do not see a Major on the horizon for this new star.

Bencic, at only 18, won her first two titles from four finals in 2015, including the prestigious Premier in Toronto. She scored eight top-10 wins, including the mighty Williams, and is now the No7 seed in Brisbane—though in such a quality draw, her opener against Sara Errani is a tough one, with Sharapova scheduled for the quarters.

Like Bencic, much was expected of Eugenie Bouchard after she lit up 2014 by reaching the quarters of the Australian and French Opens and the final of Wimbledon. The weight of expectation proved a big burden though, and after reaching the quarters in Melbourne as the No7 seed last season, her form slid through 10 first-round losses, including Wimbledon, until a freak accident, resulting in concussion, all but finished her 2015 season.

Now age 21, Bouchard begins again where the fairytale started, ranked 49 and working her way through the seeds in Shenzhen, Hobart and Melbourne.

Who plays where before the Australian Open?

Week beginning 4 January

Brisbane International (Premier) 30-place draw
Defending champion, Maria Sharapova
Seeds: 1 Simona Halep; 2 Garbine Muguruza; 3 Maria Sharapova; 4 Angelique Kerber; 5 Timea Bacsinszky; 6 Carla Suarez Navarro; 7 Belinda Bencic; 8 Roberta Vinci
Also playing: Victoria Azarenka

Shenzhen Open (International) 32-place draw
Defending champion, Simona Halep
Seeds: 1 Agnieszka Radwanska; 2 Petra Kvitova; Irina-Camelia Begu; 3 Monica Niculescu; 4 Johanna Konta; 5 Eugenie Bouchard; 6 Zarina Diyas; 7 Annika Beck; 8 Timea Babos

Auckland Classic (International) 32-place draw
Defending champion, Venus Williams
Seeds: 1 Venus Williams; 2 Ana Ivanovic; 3 Caroline Wozniacki; 4 Svetlana Kuznetsova; 5 Sloane Stephens; 6 Coco Vandeweghe; 7 Barbora Strycova; 8 Alison Van Uytvanck

Hopman Cup (Perth, W Australia: ITF event)
Eight national teams each comprising one man and one woman in singles and mixed doubles round-robin format.
Defending champions, Poland
Pool A
Australia Gold: Jarmilla Gajdosova/Lleyton Hewitt
USA: Serena Williams/Jack Sock
Czech Rep: Karolina Pliskova/Jiri Vesely
Ukraine: Elina Svitolina/Alexandr Dolgopolov
Pool B
France: Caroline Garcia/Kenny De Schepper
GB: Heather Watson/Andy Murray
Australia Green: Daria Gavrilova/Nick Kyrgios
Germany: Sabine Lisicki/Alexander Zverev

Week commencing 11 January

Sydney International (Premier) 30-place draw
Defending champion, Petra Kvitova
Top ranked: Simona Halep; Agnieszka Radwanska; Petra Kvitova; Angelique Kerber; Karolina Pliskova; Timea Bacsinszky; Carla Suarez Navarro, Belinda Bencic
NB Lucie Safarova scheduled to play, but illness is affecting Australian Open preps

Hobart (International) 32-place draw
Defending champion, Heather Watson
Top ranked: Sloane Stephens; Camila Giorgi; Dominika Cibulkova; Monica Niculescu; Madison Brengle; Barbora Strycova; Alize Cornet; Alison Van Uytvanck
Also playing: Johanna Konta and Heather Watson

MORE: Can Federer, Murray, Wawrinka, Nadal challenge dominant Djokovic as Australia beckons?

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