That 23rd Major victory took Williams back to No1, but the top spot would change hands seven times in 2017, and by the time the tour reached the last Major, the US Open, no fewer than eight women had a chance to claim the top spot.
Perhaps the most persistent challenge came from Simona Halep, who needed to draw on all her resilience as chances to claim the No1 ranking evaporated before her eyes. After an injury-blighted start to the year, she stormed through the clay swing, and the No1 ranking was hers if she won at Roland Garros. She was runner-up.
After losing to Jelena Ostapenko in Paris, she had another bite of the cherry in Eastbourne: she fell to Caroline Wozniacki. The odds then seemed in her favour at Wimbledon as she came within touching distance of the semis, which would have sealed the deal, only to lose 7-6, 6-7, 4-6 to Johanna Konta.
Halep’s hopes were ignited again through the US Open Series, and come Cincinnati, Halep could grab No1 with the title. She made the final, only to be beaten by Garbine Muguruza.
So Halep’s hopes for No1 moved to the US Open, but fate dealt her Maria Sharapova in the first round: She would have to wait, and Muguruza stole her thunder.
Halep was at last rewarded with a final run in Beijing, and has been No1 since last October, yet so narrow was her lead—40pts—that she was already vulnerable in the first week of 2018. She rose to the challenge, though, won the Shenzhen title, and is now the top seed at a Major for the first time.
Yet the battle for the top continues unabated, with no fewer than five women able to displace Halep in Australia. In her favour, she has only first-round points to defend. Weighed against her are a tough draw, and the fine form of, in particular, Wozniacki.
The Dane, who won her first title a decade ago, is still only 27 but she enjoyed a span of almost a year at No1 in 2011. Injury and loss of form, though, saw her slip to a low of 74 as little as 16 months ago, but she was back to her best last year, made eight finals, and converted two of them into titles—including her first WTA Championship.
With her final finish in Auckland last week, Wozniacki returned to No2, and could now reclaim the top spot after six years, though she needs to make at least the semis—and she has not done that since her chart-topping 2011.
The next threat to both women is 23-year-old Elina Svitolina, who led the tour with five titles last year. She has already won the Brisbane title this year, but she too needs to reach the semis in Melbourne. And were it not for a stacked quarter, she would indeed be a strong favourite to make the last four. However, more of that below.
For the top two seeds, an even bigger prize would be the Australian title: Despite the consistently high standards they have brought to court for several years, neither has won a Major, though both have reached two finals.
There are nine Major champions in the draw this year, four of whom won their first titles during the last two years.And in the absence of all but two former Australian champions—Angelique Kerber and Sharapova—the door has opened a little.
However, Halep faces a formidable draw, and though she should top Eugenie Bouchard in the second round, she will likely find former Wimbledon champion, Petra Kvitova, in the third, though the Czech has a tough opener against Andrea Petkovic.
Beyond that is one of the most improved players of the last year, Ashleigh Barty—up from 232 to No18 in 12 months—with Karolina Pliskova or Konta in the quarters. Should she survive that far, the semis could pose Kerber, Sharapova or Muguruza—Major champions all.
Not that Wozniacki’s progress to the required semis will be smooth. She should come through initial seeds such as Kiki Bertens and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, but then could meet the survivor of one of the toughest segments in the draw: Ostapenko, former Australian finalist Dominika Cibulkova, or the formidable Coco Vandeweghe, who enjoyed a substantial rise last year with semi runs at both the Australian and US Opens.
There is a clutch of unseeded former top-10 players here too, including a couple of Major champions: Sam Stosur, Francesca Schiavone, Monica Puig, Carla Suarez Navarro. It is a tricky section.
Svitolina, who is one of the women who has been knocking on the No1 door for months, may get her chance in Melbourne if she shows the kind of form that won the Brisbane title. The Dubai and Toronto titles last year also testify to her hard-court strength.
But to make the semis in Melbourne—and she has yet to really step up at the hard-court Majors—she will have to beat some big-time competition. The fourth round poses US champion Sloane Stephens, the quarters Venus Williams or the in-form Julia Goerges—though the German withdrew from Sydney with a knee injury after winning Auckland. Also scattered in this quarter are unseeded talents: Maria Sakkari or Katerina Siniakova in the second round, Elise Mertens and Belinda Bencic elsewhere.
The remarkably confident Ostapenko, who won the French Open just as she turned 20, was ranked 44 at the start of last year, and arrived in Australia to reach the Auckland semis. She proved her worth with the quarter-finals at Wimbledon and a strong showing through the Asian swing, too, but this year, she has made first-round exits in both WTA tournaments played.
It is hard to see her cashing in on her No1 chance, then, as she would have to win the title, and she has drawn Schiavone in the first round, and has some tough seeds in the shape of Vandeweghe, Wozniacki and Rybarikova to contend with. But she has surprised before, and does not want for self-belief.
More youngsters to watch as 2018 gets under way are 22-year-old US Open finalist Madison Keys, who reached the semis in Australia two years ago, Barty, finalist in Sydney this week, Anett Kontaveit, 121 a year ago, but two finals and a title on three different surfaces later, she is seeded 32, plus unseeded Mertens, Sakkari, Donna Vekic, Siniakova and Naomi Osaka.
Perhaps the brightest prospect, were it not for her draw, is 20-year-old Bencic, whose 2017 was blighted by injury, but she has won back-to-back WTA titles and two ITF titles since last autumn, and lost only to Kerber in a competitive Hopman Cup in Perth. That’s 31 wins in her last 35 matches. However…
Bencic has drawn the short straw in Melbourne: last year’s losing finalist and seven-time Major champion, Venus Williams.
The 37-year-old American continues to defy age and Sjogren’s Syndrome, and made the final of two Majors and the WTA Championships last year. Australia will mark a record 77th Major for the elder Williams, and her opening match against Bencic will be her 67th. Without her sister in the way, can she win her first Major in a decade? It would take a brave person to bet against it, but Bencic, Goerges, Stephens and Svitolina could all upset the veteran.
Kerber was No1 this time last year but enters the tournament she won in 2016 as the No21 seed following a confidence-sapping second half to 2017—she won five matches after Wimbledon.
But as she approaches her 30th birthday this week, she is back in fine shape and upbeat mood after going unbeaten in four matches at the Hopman Cup and on into the Sydney final.
She faces some real tests in Melbourne, though, with the threat of Sharapova in the third round, Muguruza or Agnieszka Radwanska in the fourth, and Keys or the charismatic talent of Caroline Garcia, give or take a back injury, in the quarters.
Konta will hope to equal last year’s quarter-final run, though Pliskova has proved a tough nut to crack for the Briton many times. Whether Konta can reach the semis, as she did in 2016, will depend on whether she can regain the form and fitness that went missing in the latter stages of 2017, and she has struggled so far this year.
After Pliskova, she could face Halep or Kvitova, on a tough road beginning in Round 1 with a woman who has beaten her three times, Madison Brengle.
Heather Watson plays Yulia Putintseva, ranked 24 places higher, but the Briton has made a good showing to the semis in Hobart this week. Her second match could be against No11 seed, Kristina Mladenovic, with Keys and Garcia subsequently.
Naomi Broady’s qualifying Round 2 match was postponed to Saturday by rain.
Previous champions and finalists in draw
Women’s champions: Kerber (one), Sharapova (one)
Women’s finalists: Williams (two), Cibulkova (one)
Seeded withdrawals: Serena Williams, Svetlana Kuznetsova
Other withdrawals: Timea Bacsinszky, Laura Siegemund, Sara Sorribes Tormo, Zheng Saisai, Ana Konjuh
No1 contenders: Who can overtake Halep?
Wozniacki needs to reach semis
Svitolina needs to reach semis
Muguruza needs to reach final
Pliskova needs to win title, with other results falling in her favour
Ostapenko needs to win title, with other results falling in her favour
Champions so far in 2018
Svitolina (Brisbane), Halep (Shenzhen), Goerges (Auckland), Mertens vs Mihaela Buzarnescu (final Hobart), Barty vs Kerber (final Sydney)
(NB Kerber 4-0 in Hopman Cup)
R1: Destanee Aiava
R2: Bouchard or Oceane Dodin
R3: No27 Kvitova
R4: No18 Barty or No16 Elena Vesnina
QF: No9 Konta, No20 Barbora Strycova, No29 Lucie Safarova, No6 Pliskova
SF: No3 Muguruza, No8 Garcia
R1: Jessika Ponchet
R2: Su-Wei Hsieh or qualifier
R3: No26 Radwanska
R4: No21 Kerber or No14 Anastasija Sevastova
QF: No11 Mladenovic, No17 Keys, No28 Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, No8 Garcia
SF: No1 Halep, No6 Pliskova
R2: Siniakova or Sakkari
R3: No25 Shuai Peng
R4: No13 Stephens or No22 Daria Kasatkina
QF: No12 Goerges, No23 Daria Gavrilova, No31 Ekaterina Makarova, No5 Williams
SF: No2 Wozniacki, No7 Ostapenko
R1: Mihaela Buzarnescu
R2: Misa Eguchi or Jana Fett
R3: No30 Bertens
R4: No19 Magdalena Rybarikova or No15 Pavlyuchenkova
QF: No10 Vandeweghe, No24 Cibulkova, No32 Kontaveit, No7 Ostapenko
SF: No5 Williams, No4 Svitolina
Australian Open 2018 preview: Federer goes for 20, but Djokovic, Wawrinka and Del Potro loom
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