The new tennis season will kick off in dramatic fashion this week, with eight of the world’s top ten female players entered into the Brisbane International. With such a strong field, the $1 million tournament is set to be the best indicator of who is in form ahead of the year’s first Grand Slam. Of the WTA elite, only Li Na and Agnieszka Radwanska have opted to warm up elsewhere for the Australian Open.
The star-studded draw has awarded byes to the top two seeds, Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova. World number one Azarenka will face either Sabine Lisicki or Lucie Safarova in her second round match, a tough task in her first competitive encounter of 2013. Both Lisicki and Safarova are powerful, talented fighters who are more than capable of upsetting illustrious opponents: Safarova was part of the Czech Republic’s winning Fed Cup team, while Lisicki dumped Sharapova out of Wimbledon last summer. Assuming she can find her way past either of those foes, Azarenka is seeded to face Caroline Wozniacki in the quarter-finals. The Dane had a hugely disappointing 2012, but showed signs of life towards the end of the year, winning titles in Seoul and Moscow. To book a clash with the Belarusian, however, she will need to dispatch a qualifier in the first round, followed by either Ursula Radwanska or Tamira Paszek, who beat her in a thrilling three-setter at Wimbledon in June.
Heading the second section of the draw is the woman many believe could secure a clean sweep of the Grand Slams in 2013: Serena Williams. Having utterly dominated the second half of 2012, winning Wimbledon, the US Open, the Olympic Gold Medal and the end-of-year championships, Serena announced that she couldn’t wait for the new season to begin. Although she has recently undergone minor foot surgery, the younger Williams sister seems ready not only to begin the new season with a tournament win, but also to reclaim the number one ranking. Standing in her way in Brisbane are two fast-rising compatriots, Varvara Lepchenko and Sloane Stephens. Lepchenko has climbed to 21 in the world to become the American number two, while 19-year-old Stephens seemed to improve on a weekly basis in 2012 before injury kept her off the court post-US Open. Williams is seeded to meet local heroine Sam Stosur in the last eight, but we can never be sure which Stosur will turn up. Will it be the dazzlingly aggressive player who stunned Serena – and the world – to win the 2011 US Open? Or will it be the fragile, inconsistent introvert who seems to wilt under pressure and endure puzzling losses?
Not entirely dissimilar to Stosur is Petra Kvitova. The Czech ended her breakthrough 2011 within a hundred or so points of the top ranking, but after failing to defend her Wimbledon title as well as deep runs at other major tournaments, she finished 2012 ranked eighth. Most observers feel Kvitova is far too talented to languish so low, as she has the game to challenge for the biggest titles on every surface. But has she recovered from the illness and injury that affected her so badly last season? Her opening match against the consistent and speedy Carla Suarez Navarro should reveal a lot about Kvitova’s condition at the beginning of 2013. If she struggles to acclimatise to the Australian heat, she could suffer an early exit at the hands of either the aforementioned Spaniard or Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, but if she can recapture the form that led her to the semi-finals of the Australian Open last year, she will be favoured to come through her quarter, even if she has to face Angelique Kerber in the last eight.
Leading the final section of the Brisbane draw is Maria Sharapova. The Russian appears motivated and energised following a superb 2012 that saw her win the French Open and earn the career Grand Slam. But there is always a sense that she is more vulnerable to upset than other top players, especially if she has a poor serving day or fails to find the range on her groundstrokes. Her opening match, probably against Roberta Vinci, will be a stern test. Although the Italian lacks Sharapova’s weapons and tenacity, she is more than capable of upsetting her rhythm and coaxing her into unforced errors. Should Sharapova negotiate that obstacle, she will most likely face either 2012’s “little engine that could,” Sara Errani, or Slovak veteran Daniela Hantuchova. Both of these are manageable opponents for Sharapova, assuming she is on her game and willing to work her way into long rallies.
Serena def. Azarenka
Sharapova def. Kvitova
Serena def. Sharapova
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