Although the tennis off-season is notoriously short, die-hard fans are already turning their attention towards 2013 and, more specifically, the first Grand Slam of the year. 2012 was an excellent season on the WTA Tour. After many years of parity, several slam-less number one players and a paucity of high-quality matches in the major tournaments, the last twelve months have seen the return of stability, with the same big names regularly competing for the biggest titles.
But while there have been many enthralling contests throughout the year, one woman emerged as the Queen Bee. With two Grand Slams, the Olympic Gold Medal and victory at the season-ending WTA Championships, Serena Williams proved that when she is healthy and motivated, few other players can compete with her, let alone beat her. In Istanbul last month, the younger Williams sister admitted that she can’t wait for the tour to resume in Australia. Already regarded as one of the greatest players of all time, Serena has her sights on yet more glory.
So, with the Australian Open on the horizon, who can stop the American from collecting her sixth title in Melbourne? Here, we countdown the five players most likely to prevent Serena from securing a 16th Grand Slam.
5. Maria Sharapova
The Russian is widely acknowledged as one of the toughest, steeliest competitors in the game, and she has beaten Serena on two of the biggest stages in the sport, at Wimbledon and the end-of-year championships. The problem is that both of these victories occurred in 2004, and Serena has won all nine of the pair’s clashes since then. In fact, Sharapova hasn’t won a set against Williams since 2008: it seems that each time the two superstars face off, Serena is determined not just to beat but to annihilate her opponent. Sharapova’s powerful game, which leaves most lesser foes floundering, looks weaponless against the American. In every department, Serena is the superior player: her serve is the stuff of legend, her groundstrokes are brutal and pinpoint, and her defence is, at its best, almost impenetrable. There must surely come a time when Sharapova will once again get the upper hand over her nemesis, but to beat her at the Australian Open 2013, she will have to play at the very peak of her powers and hope that Serena suffers a letdown.
4. Agnieszka Radwanska
Including Radwanska in this list may raise a few eyebrows, given that she has never beaten Williams in their three career meetings. However, the first two of those clashes took place in 2008, when the Pole was still a teenager. Their only encounter since was in the 2012 Wimbledon final, a hugely competitive match in which Radwanska surprised many by pushing Serena to three sets. The world number four is the least powerful player in the WTA top tier, but she has attracted much praise for her keen tennis brain and peerless anticipation. By changing pace, spin and direction during her matches – and even during rallies – Radwanska has found a way to succeed without relentlessly bashing the ball, and her unique, versatile game gives her a chance of scoring an upset should she meet Serena in Melbourne. The American does have her “off” days, occasions on which her groundstrokes fall flat, the booming serve isn’t clicking and the error count piles up. When she went off the boil at Wimbledon, Radwanska capitalised by simply not missing any shots. If Serena fails to play well from the beginning of a potential Australian Open clash, the capable counter-puncher could frustrate her into making mistakes and going for too much.
3. Petra Kvitova
Like Radwanska, Petra Kvitova is 0-3 against Serena, but keen followers of the game have little doubt that the Czech, at her best, is one of the few women in the world capable of mounting a consistent challenge against her. After she won Wimbledon in 2011 and ended that year within striking distance of the world number one ranking, many expected Kvitova to dominate 2012. The left-hander has one of the best serves in tennis, can unleash winners from anywhere on the court and knows how to volley. But this season proved to be the dreaded sophomore slump for the 22-year-old. Although she managed to reach the quarter finals of three Grand Slams, Kvitova suffered several puzzling losses throughout the year, and was set back further by various health issues. Her many fans are hoping that the off-season will allow her to recover, recharge and reboot, ready for an assault on 2013. Should Kvitova arrive in Australia in top form, a clash with Serena would be highly anticipated. In July, their Wimbledon quarter-final was one of the best matches of the tournament, a stunning display of power tennis that was decided by the narrowest of margins. A reversal of fortunes is definitely possible in Melbourne.
2. Victoria Azarenka
Victoria Azarenka had her best season by far in 2012, picking up her first Grand Slam and looking unbeatable in the first quarter of the year. By winning five further titles, as well as more matches than any other player on the WTA Tour, she became the most dominant world number one since Justine Henin and proved that her desire and attitude were beyond reproach. However, of her ten losses this year, exactly half of them came at the hands of Serena. On clay, grass and hard courts, the 15-time Grand Slam champion clearly had the edge over her 23-year-old opponent, and the victories ranged from a 6-1, 6-2 beatdown in the Olympic semi-finals to a scintillating 7-5 win in the third set of the US Open final. That loss in New York was a heartbreaker for Azarenka, but there were encouraging signs that the Belarusian is getting closer to overcoming Serena on the biggest stages. The foes are evenly matched from the baseline, and while Serena’s serve is undoubtedly stronger, Azarenka is one of the best in the world at turning defence into attack. A meeting in Melbourne, in either the semi-finals or final, would be another high-stakes match between the two. Victory would legitimise once and for all Azarenka’s number one credentials, and set up an intriguing rivalry for the remainder of 2013.
1. Serena Williams
Correct: the player most likely to block Serena’s path to a Grand Slam sweet sixteen is Serena herself. If we look back on her career, there have been very few players capable of beating the American on a consistent basis. At the beginning of the century, Martina Hingis had a strong record against her, but most of the Swiss Miss’ victories were over a younger, less experienced Serena. Jennifer Capriati beat her seven times, but many of those matches were played when Serena was not at full fitness. Only Venus Williams and Justine Henin managed to regularly find a way past Serena, and even big sister hasn’t beaten her since 2009, while Henin bowed out of the game in early 2011. A scrutiny of Serena’s recent Grand Slam losses reveals that, however well her opponents may have played, it was the world number three who sealed her own fate. In her notorious French Open 2012 defeat to Virginie Razzano, Serena’s petulant moodswing in the second set tie-break and subsequent mental walkabout proved her undoing. She came into last year’s Australian Open nursing an ankle injury, hit 37 unforced errors and seven double faults in her fourth round match, and was duly dispatched by Ekaterina Makarova. And in the US Open final 2011, her meltdown after being called out for “hindrance” prevented her from mounting a sustained and focussed comeback against Sam Stosur.
Serena has been justly criticised in the past for failing to give enough credit to opponents when they beat her. But she knows, as do most tennis fans, that her best is simply too good for everyone else. Now, aged 31 and exhibiting a mature, balanced and calm approach to the game, Serena appears to have learned from her mistakes and is more motivated – and dedicated – than ever. Barring injury, a serious slump or another ugly tantrum, it will take a superb performance from one of the aforementioned women to stop Serena from become the 2013 Australian Open champion.