Williams, Sharapova and Wozniacki headline launch events for Australian Open

Marianne Bevis takes a look at where the top players will be undertaking their Australian Open preparations

Three of last year’s Grand Slam champions begin their preparations for the first Major of 2015 in earnest this week as the cream of women’s tennis plunge headlong into the all-too-short fortnight that announces the Australian Open.

Serena Williams ended 2014 with familiar panache—she won a sixth US Open title and a fifth WTA Championship, both for the third year in a row to extend her streak at No1 to almost 100 weeks—and tops the Hopman Cup field, partnering John Isner in this popular ITF team event. It is, perhaps, a surprising choice, given that Williams has won Brisbane for the last two years, but then she has points to spare over her chasing rival.

That rival is Maria Sharapova, who lost to Williams in the Brisbane semis last year but this time tops the seeds.

Last year, Sharapova was almost unbeatable on clay, losing just one match—in Rome to Ana Ivanovic—but claiming Stuttgart, Madrid and the French Open. And from No9 in March, she ended the year at No2 with a title run in Beijing.

As luck would have it, Ivanovic heads the bottom half of the Brisbane draw, for she too had a resurgent season in 2014. She won her first title in three years—indeed a career-best four from six finals. She had more WTA match-wins—58—than anyone on the tour, and beat Sharapova twice.

Brisbane boasts eight top-20 women, though No20 Garbine Muguruza has pulled out with an ankle injury. And there is strength in depth throughout the draw, with other possible Australian Open seeds Sabine Lisicki, Elina Svitolina, Sam Stosur and Madison Keys involved.

Stosur and Lisicki did not do their seeding chances much good after losing in the first round, but it was the early loss of another woman that made headlines on opening day.

Two-time Australian champion Victoria Azarenka, whose run of 18 wins in Melbourne came to an end in last year’s quarter-finals, ended 2014 30 places below the No2 she held at the start of the season after a foot injury allowed her only one match in the four and a half months up to June.

She was then hit by knee and foot injuries, and by the time she played a scorching No23 Karolina Pliskova in Brisbane, where she was a finalist last year, Azarenka had slipped to 42. So her chances of a seeding for Melbourne look lost, but in losing to Pliskova, Azarenka appeared fit and eager considering her 2014 setbacks. Hers will be the name everyone hopes to avoid in the early rounds come the Australian Open.

No4-ranked Petra Kvitova, who claimed her second Wimbledon title in 2014 before leading the Czech Fed Cup team to its third victory in four years, is the second seed at the Shenzhen Open behind No3 ranked Simona Halep—the only two top-20 players in the Chinese tournament.

The progress of Halep in 2015 after another strong year in which she rose from No11 via a first Grand Slam quarter-final in Australia, the final of the French Open, the semis at Wimbledon, and the final of the WTA Championships, could provide one of the storylines of this season.

If she can find consistent results rather than the seesawing ones of 2014—six times she lost her opening match last year and twice more retired in her second match—she could be tilting for world No1, but then so are former No1s Sharapova, Ivanovic and the top seed in Auckland, Caroline Wozniacki.

The Dane made a strong comeback from No18 last March to a current No8, reached her first Grand Slam final since 2009 at the US Open, and then her first WTA Championship in three years.

Four times after Wimbledon Wozniacki faced Williams in the latter stages of big tournaments and three times she took the top seed to three sets—indeed to a final tie-breaker at the WTA Championships. That is how close the Dane has come to her best. Williams, though, by her standards, had a lean first six months in 2014, and so may continue her grip on the rankings for some months yet.

Who plays where before the Australian Open?

NB The only possible Melbourne seed not in action is No10 Ekaterina Makarova

Week beginning 4 January

Brisbane International Premier 30-place draw
Defending champion, Serena Williams
Seeds: 1 Maria Sharapova; 2 Ana Ivanovic; 3 Angelique Kerber; 4 Dominika Cibulkova (lost R1); 5 Andrea Petkovic (lost R1); 6 Jelena Jankovic (lost R1); 7 Carla Suarez Navarro; 8 LL Alla Kudryavtseva

Shenzhen Open International 32-place draw
Defending champion, Li Na
Seeds: 1 Simona Halep; 2 Petra Kvitova; 3 Shuai Peng (lost R1); 4 Zarina Diyas; 5 Klara Koukalova (lost R1); 6 Irina-Camelia Begu (lost R1); 7 Monica Niculescu (lost R1); 8 Timea Bacsinszky

Auckland Classic International, 32-place draw
Defending champion, Ana Ivanovic
Seeds: 1 Caroline Wozniacki; 2 Sara Errani (lost R1); 3 Venus Williams; 4 Barbora Zahlavova Strycova; 5 Svetlana Kuznetsova; 6 Sloane Stephens; 7 Coco Vandeweghe; 8 Mona Barthel (lost R1)

Hopman Cup (Perth, W Australia): ITF team challenge
Eight national teams each comprising one man and one woman in singles and mixed doubles round-robin format.
Defending champions, France

Pool A
Australia: Casey Dellacqua/Matt Ebden
Canada: Milos Raonic/Eugenie Bouchard
Czech Rep: Lucie Safarova/Adam Pavlasek
Italy: Flavia Pennetta/Fabio Fognini

Pool B
France: Alize Cornet/Benoit Paire
GB: Heather Watson/Andy Murray
Poland: Agnieszka Radwanska/Jerzy Janowicz
USA: Serena Williams/John Isner

Week commencing 11 January

Sydney International Premier 30-place draw
Defending champion, Tsvetana Pironkova
Likely seeds: Simona Halep, Petra Kvitova, Agnieszka Radwanska, Caroline Wozniacki, Angelique Kerber, Dominika Cibulkova, Flavia Pennetta, Andrea Petkovic

Hobart International 32-place draw
Defending champion, Garbine Muguruza
Likely seeds: Casey Dellacqua, Zarina Dyas, Camila Giorgi, Varvara Lepchencko, Sloane Stephens, Klara Koukalova, Mona Barthel, Alison Riske

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