We’re just days away from the first Grand Slam of the year, and the women’s tournament is dominated by one question: can anyone stop Serena? In fact, that has been the dominant question at every major event since mid-2012. Showing astonishing consistency, hunger and eagerness to improve her already-iconic game, Serena has proven to be far and away the best player in the world over the last 18 months. The 2014 Australian Open, then, is a chance for the 32-year-old to chase yet more history: a sixth title down under would make her the holder of 18 Grand Slams and put her on a par with Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova.
Check Out the Full Draw HERE: Australian Open 2014 Women’s draw
Here is a look at who Serena, and her main competitors, will have to beat to reach the latter stages in Melbourne…
Serena Williams’ quarter
Serena opens her campaign for yet more glory against one of the host country’s most promising newcomers, Ashleigh Barty. Barty endeared herself to the local fans at last year’s Australian Open, when she and Casey Dellacqua made the final of the doubles event. Barty has since climbed to 153rd in the singles rankings and, still only 17 years old, reached the last 16 in Brisbane last week before pulling out with an abductor injury. Serena should have few problems even if Barty is fully recovered in Melbourne, and will most likely focus on making a strong start to their match in order to dampen the local support.
Neither Vesna Dolonc nor Lara Arruabarrena – both ranked outside the top 100 – should pose much of a threat to the top seed in round two, and in the third round Serena is slated to meet the 31st seed Daniela Hantuchova. The Slovak beat her at the 2006 Australian Open, but Serena is a totally different player these days, and it is extremely difficult to imagine her dropping a set to Hantuchova, a wily but inconsistent veteran.
The other big names in Serena’s section are Sam Stosur and Ana Ivanovic, seeded 17th and 14th respectively. Stosur has been playing better than usual on home soil, reaching the semi-finals of the Hobart International, but the bad news for Australia’s top player is that she will play the tricky Klara Zakopalova in the opening round, probably followed by a resurgent Tsvetana Pironkova, the Sydney champion, in round two. Ivanovic, who stormed to the title in Auckland in the first week of the year, looks set to live up to her seeding, but is she playing well enough to test Serena for the first time ever?
If, as expected, Serena does come through her first four matches, she won’t lose too much sleep over her quarter-final opponent. At that stage she is seeded to face Sara Errani, but the Italian has had a less than impressive start to 2014. Errani’s doubles partner, Roberta Vinci, is the next highest seed in Serena’s quarter, yet she has fared even worse in the New Year, tumbling at the first hurdle in both Auckland and Sydney. This is therefore a great opportunity for the WTA’s young guns to make an impact: Lauren Davis, Eugenie Bouchard, Laura Robson and Madison Keys are all lurking in this part of the draw. Keys has been the most promising of the four so far in 2014, and the big-serving American has the game to overpower Vinci in the second round, especially if the courts are playing fast.
Predicted quarter-final: Serena v Keys
Li Na’s quarter
Li Na began the year in the same way she began 2013: by winning the title in Shenzhen. We know that she is a dependable member of the top five who frequently picks up silverware, but can she make a third Australian Open final? The Chinese star opens her campaign against a qualifier, and could meet Kimiko Date-Krumm in a fun second round match. Her slated round three opponent is the often dangerous Lucie Safarova, but Li has beaten the big-hitting Czech five times in six meetings and will be favoured to do so again.
Li’s last 16 match could be one of the highlights of the middle weekend. The fourth seed is due to face Sabine Lisicki, against whom she has a 2-2 record. Lisicki may not have done much since reaching the Wimbledon final last summer, but she could certainly do some damage in the quick, hot Melbourne conditions. Moreover, she is one of the few players capable of out-hitting Li from the back of the court.
But to set up that date, Lisicki will most likely have to get past one of two formidable players who face off in a high-stakes first round match. Ekaterina Makarova, seeded 22nd this year, made the last eight of the Australian Open in 2012 and 2013 and has established herself as a confident resident in the WTA’s top 25. Venus Williams is unseeded in Melbourne, but she looks to be in good form, having come within a few games of the title in Auckland. The elder Williams sister has beaten Makarova in both of their previous encounters, but they have never met on hard courts.
Many fans will be hoping for a blockbuster last eight showdown between Li and Petra Kvitova. The Czech finished 2013 strongly, suggesting that she may be ready to claim another major title this season. But can she stay consistent enough to survive the first week? Kvitova looked sharp during her first couple of matches in Sydney, but she stumbled badly against Pironkova, and her path to the quarter-finals in Melbourne is studded with tough customers such as Mona Barthel, a potential second round opponent, and Flavia Pennetta, who she could meet in the third round. If Kvitova can pass those tests, she may well meet Angelique Kerber in the last 16, the runner-up in Sydney. The German has said she is aiming to play more aggressively in 2014, and she has always pushed Kvitova hard. Their fourth round match could be a long, gruelling affair.
Predicted quarter-final: Li v Kerber
Maria Sharapova’s quarter
Maria Sharapova’s run to the semi-finals in Brisbane proved that she has recovered from her shoulder injury. More rested than any other top player, can she make the latter stages of the Grand Slam she won six years ago? The Russian will have to be at her very best from the get-go in Melbourne, as she faces Bethanie Mattek-Sands in round one. The American has started the year in scintillating form, beating Agnieszka Radwanska in Sydney. Her bombastic playing style is high-risk, high-reward, and if she finds her range against Sharapova, the third seed could be in big trouble.
If, however, Sharapova can outslug Mattek-Sands and produce the kind of sharp, consistent tennis that saw her reclaim the number one ranking in 2012, she would be a reasonably safe bet to reach the quarter-finals. Her section features occasionally dangerous players such as Alize Cornet, Dominika Cibulkova and Carla Suarez Navarro, but none possesses Sharapova’s big-match temperament and laser-like focus.
Also bidding to come through this quarter are two women who enjoyed brilliant seasons last year: Jelena Jankovic and Simona Halep. Jankovic has had a mixed start to 2014: she almost beat Victoria Azarenka in Brisbane, but fell to Makarova in Sydney. She has a favourable draw in Melbourne, opening against Misaki Doi and seeded to meet Magdalena Rybarikova in the third round (if the Slovak gets past Andrea Petkovic in round one). Halep, who won six titles last year, has not begun this season strongly, losing to Keys in Sydney. The Romanian has a feasible route to the last 16, starting against a qualifier and then playing either Varvara Lepchenko or Lesia Tsurenko, but she’ll have to be in top form to overcome Bojana Jovanovski or compatriot Sorana Cristea in the third round. Halep beat Jankovic twice on clay in 2013; the reward for a maiden hard court victory over the Serb will be a first ever Grand Slam quarter-final appearance. But how confident will Halep be with only one match under her belt?
Predicted quarter-final: Sharapova v Jankovic
Victoria Azarenka’s quarter
Victoria Azarenka’s quest for an Australian Open three-peat begins against Sweden’s Johanna Larsson, who she beat in their only previous meeting. After that, the Belarusian will take on Su-Wei Hsieh or Barbora Zahlavova Strycova – neither of whom have troubled her in the past. Azarenka’s first big test will probably come in round three, where she is seeded to meet Jamie Hampton. The American had her on the ropes at the same stage last year, but how freely will she be hitting after sustaining a hip injury in Auckland?
The competition gets even stiffer for Azarenka in the last 16, where she could face either Sloane Stephens or Svetlana Kuznetsova. A clash with Stephens would be a rematch of the ultra-controversial semi-final last year in which Vika took a dubious medical time-out. She hasn’t lost to Kuznetsova since 2009, but the Russian is always capable of producing a giant-killing performance if she’s fit and healthy.
If she survives the first week, Azarenka may feel slightly more relaxed about her semi-final prospects. Agnieszka Radwanska is the fifth seed and a superb hard court player, but she has a 3-12 record against Azarenka and could have her sore shoulder tested by hard-hitting Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in the third round. Caroline Wozniacki is the next highest ranked player in this section, but she too could face a stern third round workout with Kaia Kanepi, the 24th seed. A Radwanska-Wozniacki fourth round duel would be a fun, interesting watch. The Dane leads the head-to-head 5-4, but Radwanska has won their last three meetings. Of the two, it is Wozniacki who is in more need of the win. Can new coach Thomas Hogstedt convince her to break out of her defensive-minded playing patterns and make a new claim for a place in the world’s top five?
Predicted quarter-final: Azarenka v Wozniacki
Semi-final: Serena def. Li; Azarenka def. Sharapova
For perhaps the first time ever, the Australian Open is hoping to live up to the Brisbane International. There, we saw high-quality battles between Serena/Sharapova and Serena/Azarenka, matches that bristled with intensity. Azarenka is the player most likely to push Serena in Melbourne, but can she go one better and beat her in a Grand Slam for the frist time? The age gap between the world’s best players suggests that there will come a day when Azarenka gets the better of Serena, but that day won’t come at the 2014 Australian Open. Serena Williams has the best serve in the game, moves better than almost anyone, and has unrivalled reserves of mental strength. Barring another unfortunate injury, the Daphne Akhurst trophy is hers to lose.