Australian Open 2016 preview: Can Azarenka reclaim title from Serena Williams?

Marianne Bevis previews the women's draw at the Australian Open, where Serena Williams is the favourite to retain her title

Will it be history for Serena?

Serena Williams: one of the greatest women ever to play tennis, one of the finest female athletes in any sport, the defending and six-time Australian champion, a record-breaker many times over, and now targeting the ultimate record, the most Grand Slam singles titles.

She has been the dominant player of the last four years, and remains, at the age of 34, at the top of the rankings with a clear margin 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—holding all four at the same time with the 2014 US Open title—and she ended her season with a remarkable 53-3.

Yet despite being at the top of her game for 15 years—even with extended absences for injury in 2006 and for illness in 2010/11—and despite her achievements of the last season, there remain as many questions as answers with the often-enigmatic Williams.

For she arrived in Australia not fully fit, though she had not played a match since falling in the semis of the US Open. She did not play a match in the Hopman Cup as she nursed a knee problem, and although she has been practising in Melbourne all week, photos of a grimacing Williams suggest all is still not well.

In fairness, she has batted away any such suggestion: “I’m a little tired today. I’ve been working so hard… I’ve had really good preparation—I don’t have the match-play that I’ve wanted but after playing for so many years, I should be able to focus.

“[My knee] is actually really fine…. Honestly, I don’t have anything to prove. I have nothing to lose. I can only gain.”

Even assuming Williams is 100 percent, there remain big hurdles for the champion in the shape of a tough draw, a resurgence by one of her closest rivals, Victoria Azarenka, some ambitious, fast-improving younger stars keen to make their mark, and a few older ones enjoying an Indian summer.

In the 12 years since Williams first won the Australian Open, only two other active players have won the first Major of the year: Maria Sharapova in 2008 and Victoria Azarenka in 2012 and 2013. Are they her biggest threats in 2016?

The Sharapova question

For Sharapova, the task is especially big if she has ambitions to reach the very top a decade after she first made it to No1. Not since the end of 2004 has Sharapova beaten Williams in 17 attempts, and three of those losses have been in Australia, including last year’s final. Indeed Sharapova has only won three sets since taking Williams to three in their 2005 Australian Open semi-final.

Like Williams, the current world No5 played little part in much of the latter part of 2015, missing the entire US Open Series with injury. She suffered another blow at the start of 2016, with an injured forearm preventing her from defending her Brisbane title—the blow that took her to No5 and, as [bad] luck would have it, into Williams’ quarter.

The Russian has been practising hard in Melbourne, so the injury looks healed, and she beat No2 Simona Halep, No4 Agnieszka Radwanska and No6 Petra Kvitova in the closing weeks of 2015, so maybe, just maybe, this will be her year.

Upbeat Azarenka

The other active Australia champion in the draw has shown a gradual return to form during 2015 after a succession of injury-affected seasons. In the early months of last year, she was unseeded until eventually earning No27 at the French Open. And what Azarenka has 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 in Madrid and at Wimbledon.

Her record in Australia was further boosted by winning the Brisbane title last week, though she did not meet a top-10 player until Angelique Kerber in the final. That late boost to her ranking into the top 16 means she also avoids a higher ranked woman until at least the fourth round. So she is the book-makers second favourite with good reason, and all the more so for avoiding Williams and Sharapova until the final, and second seed Halep until the semis.

Big reputations: Radwanska, Halep, Kvitova, Venus Williams

After looking all at sea during the early months of 2015, Agnieszka Radwanska dropped outside of the top 10 for the first time since 2011, and as late as the US Open was ranked 15. But with a fine Asian swing plus the WTA Finals title under her belt, she kept up the momentum with the Shenzhen title this year. That she subsequently pulled out of Sydney with a leg injury looks precautionary rather than serious.

Radwanska is a former semi-finalist in Australia, in 2014, and made the quarters four further times. But while the No4 seed may have her own quarter, her Grand Slam ambitions faces tough opposition.

The returning Eugenie Bouchard, finalist in Hobart, lurks in the second round, in a section that also has Auckland titlist Sloane Stephens, Sydney finalist Monica Puig, the 2014 Australian finalist Dominika Cibulkova, and all that before No6 seed Kvitova, a semi-finalist in Melbourne—though the tall Czech missed both Sydney and Shenzhen with illness.

Kvitova and No8 Venus Williams are the only other Grand Slam champions in the top 15 (Ana Ivanovic is seeded No20, Svetlana Kuznetsova No23, Sam Stosur No25). The 35-year-old Venus Williams has just completed her best season since being diagnosed with Sjogren’s Syndrome in 2011: three titles, a quarter run at the Australian and US Opens, and her highest year-end ranking since 2010. However she fell at the first hurdle in attempting to defend her Auckland title, so she remains an unknown quantity, unlike Kuznetsova, who beat formidable opposition to win the Sydney title this week, including Sabine Lisicki, Sara Errani and Halep.

Halep, seeded No2, has been at the top table since 2013, and once again put a solid year behind her with titles in Indian Wells and Dubai, finals in Toronto and Cincinnati, 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 player will undoubtedly threaten again in 2016.

Chasing pack: Muguruza, Bencic, Bouchard

Aged just 22, Garbine Muguruza last year reached No3 in the world and a Wimbledon final, and impressed at her first WTA Finals. Tall, powerful and smart, there are few who do not see a Major on the horizon for the Spaniard.

No12 seed Belinda 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, though illness halted her semi run in Sydney this week. An intriguing third-round against Kuznetsova, 12 years her senior, is possible.

Much was expected of Eugenie Bouchard after she reached the quarters of the Australian and French Opens and the final of Wimbledon in 2014. 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, and ranked 37, Bouchard reached the final in Hobart—and is suddenly looking a real challenger again.

Other rising names to watch include 21-year old No36 Daria Gavrilova, 22-year-old No34 Caroline Garcia, 22-year-old No30 Kristina Mladenovic, 21-year-old No20, Elina Svitolina, and 22-year-old No26 Stephens—and don’t forget that 20-year-old Madison Keys made the semis in Melbourne last year.

Injury and illness junction

It has been a tough start to 2016 for the WTA tour, with all the tournaments losing some big names. Among the players affected have been:

• Mona Barthel picked up a back problem in Hobart
• Irina-Camelia Begu retired with a right knee injury in Shenzhen
• Madison Brengle became ill in Hobart
• Gavrilova has an ab strain
• Halep had a left leg problem in Brisbane
• Kerber retired in Sydney with illness
• Kvitova withdrew from Shenzhen and Sydney with illness
• Muguruza retired with a foot injury in Brisbane
• Radwanska withdrew from Sydney with a left leg problem
• Sharapova missed Brisbane with a forearm problem
• Stephens picked up a virus in Hobart
• Serena Williams, out of Hopman Cup with knee inflammation

Former Australian Open champions in draw: Serena Williams (6), Victoria Azarenka (2), Maria Sharapova (1)

Other Grand Slam champions: Ana Ivanovic, Petra Kvitova. Svetlana Kuznetsova, Sam Stosur, Venus Williams

Who falls where?

Williams: the stacked quarter

R1: No35 Camila Giorgi, highest-ranked player without a seeding in the tournament
R2 No81 Jelena Ostapenko or No92 Su-Wei Hsieh
R3: first seed No27 Anna Karolina Schmiedlova
R4: No16 Caroline Wozniacki or No17 Errani
QF: Sharapova, who has No26 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, or Bencic or Kuznetsova. Briton Heather Watson is in this segment too.
SF: Most likely one from Radwanska, Kvitova or Roberta Vinci.

Matches to catch:
R1 Williams vs Giorgi
R2 Bencic vs Watson
R2 Wickmayer vs Pavlyuchenkova
R3 Benic vs Kuznetsova
R3 Errani vs Wozniacki

Radwanska: qualifiers quarters (8 of them)

R1: No66 Christina McHale
R2: No47 Bouchard or No121 Aleksandra Krunic
R3 First seed No25 Stosur
R4 No13 Vinci or No24 Stephens
QF: Kvitova, Suarez Navarro, Andrea Petkovic or Mladenovic
SF: Favourites are Williams or Sharapova

Matches to catch:

R1 Gavrilova vs Hradecka
R1 Cibulkova vs Mladenovic
R1 Radwanska vs McHale
R2 Radwanska vs Bouchard
R2 Stosur vs Puig

Muguruza: Sleeping dogs quarter

R1: No86 Anett Kontaveit
R2: No80 Kirsten Flipkens or No69 Mirjana Lucic-Baroni
R3: First seed, No32 Garcia
R4: No14 Azarenka (who opens against Alison Van Uytvanck, a French Open quarter-finalist last year) or No18 Svitolina
QF: Kerber, Begu, No19 Jelena Jankovic, No11 Timea Bacsinszky: Coco Vandweghe and Brengle also here
SF: Halep, Venus Williams, Pliskova or Keys

Matches to catch:

R1 Lucic-Baroni vs Flipkens
R1 Brengle vs Vandeweghe
R3 Jankovic vs Bacsinszky
R3 Azarenka vs Svitolina
R3 Muguruza vs Garcia

Halep: Young and old quarter

R1: Qualifier Shuai Zhang
R2: No42 Cornet
R3: First seed No31 Lesia Tsurenko
R4: No15 Keys and No20 Ivanovic (former Australian finalist)
QF: No8 Venus Williams (who faces British No1 Johanna Konta in her opener), No9 Pliskova or No30 Lisicki
SF: Muguruza, Azarenka, Kerber, Jankovic

Matches to catch:
R1 Williams vs Konta
R1 Diyas vs Keys
R1 Mattek-Sands vs Allertova
R2 Goerges vs Pliskova
R2 Cornet vs Halep
R3 Keys vs Ivanovic

MORE: Australian Open preview: Novak Djokovic pursues history – but so do Federer and Murray

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