I don’t know about the players, but I’m still wondering where the off-season went. While I love tennis as much as the next gal, I could use some time to eat, sleep, google and do all those things you do when you’re not watching tennis all the time. This brings me to Melbourne, where the Australian Open starts next Monday. The main draw isn’t out yet, so I figure it’s a good time to think about who and what will and won’t happen in the women’s singles event without being constrained by the details (you know, small stuff like who’s playing who).
1) How will Justine 2.0 do?
At the French Open we wondered how Maria Sharapova would fare after nearly a year off with a shoulder injury and were pleasantly surprised when she reached the quarterfinals. At the US Open we speculated how far Kim Clijsters would take this comeback trail and were shocked when she navigated past both Williams sisters and all the way to a second Grand Slam singles title. At the Australian Open, we’re checking out Justine Henin.
We watched her some in Brisbane, where she lost to Clijsters in the final, so we know she can still hit a tennis ball or two. Now we’re talking about the first major tournament of the year. Henin may consider this a practice Grand Slam, where she can get in a few hits so she can add to her greatest hits at the Grand Slam she owned before she left the game (French Open) and then at the one she says is the reason she came back (Wimbledon). While she gets a feel for the field, we’ll get a feel for her. Is her one-handed backhand still a thing of beauty? Is her supposedly new-and-improved serve really bigger and better? Will the draw be kind to her? (Yes, Nadia Petrova, we know you want to know too.) How early would she have to face Serena Williams, who finally occupies the Number 1 ranking Henin left behind when she retired a year and a half ago?
2) What about Serena?
She’s sometimes an exclamation mark and other times a question mark, but at Grand Slams Serena is always part of the story. When the draw comes out tennis fans check to see where her name is, and surely tennis players pray it’s not next to theirs.
With Henin back, Clijsters better than ever and Sharapova likely in form again, the tennis landscape is changing. When the Australian Open is won and done will Serena still be sitting pretty, showing she dominated the scene because she’s simply the best and not simply because the rest were away? Oddsmakers can’t make up their minds. Two weeks ago Betfair thought Serena had the best odds, but this weekend they gave a slight edge to Clijsters.
Tennis aside will Serena display girls-gone-mild behavior at this Grand Slam after her girls-gone-wild behavior at the last one? How will the media treat her? So many questions and, with Serena, so many juicy answers to look forward to. Admit it – already you can’t wait to get your hands on her pressers.
3) Will the youngsters deliver?
The young player oddsmakers are betting on is Caroline Wozniacki. As of this weekend each of the four players with better odds of winning the tournament has won multiple Grand Slam titles. In fact oddsmakers give Wozniacki a better chance than three previous Grand Slam winners, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Ana Ivanovic and, most surprising, Venus Williams. Wozniacki is around a dozen spots higher than the teenager with the next best chance of winning, Melanie Oudin.
What about the other Top 10 youngsters, 20-year-olds Victoria Azarenka and Agnieszka Radwanska? Azarenka’s play in the first half of last year suggests she can improve on her quarterfinal showings at the French Open and Wimbledon. It will be interesting to see if she does, especially without coach Antonio Van Grichen; the two stopped working together in December after four years together. Will Radwanska show there’s a reason she ended the year in the Top 10 two years in a row? She has her strengths of course, but she lacks power. Some question how she’s in the Top 10, and a good showing here would be one way for her to tell them where to stick it.
Oddsmakers believe young players with a better chance of winning than even Radwanska are Yanina Wickmayer and Sabine Lisicki.
4) Who will surprise us?
Speaking of Oudin few players surprised us more at the US Open, where she beat four hard-hitting Russians before falling to a relatively soft-hitting Dane. And remember Jelena Dokic’s gutsy performance at last year’s Australian Open?
Surprises aren’t so fun to recall when they involve top players losing early. It pains me to even write this, but I’m thinking of Venus Williams at last year’s Australian Open and French Open and Ana Ivanovic at the US Open. This year you have to think top players will be in trouble if they’re slated for early meetings with the likes of Henin, who’s unranked, or Sharapova and Clijsters, who are still ranked lower than they should be.
For me the biggest surprise would be a new Grand Slam winner. With seven former Grand Slam singles winners in the draw (with Serena owning a third of the titles), a new winner seems unlikely. If there is a new winner, oddsmakers think it will be Wozniacki. Next on their list are Elena Dementieva, Victoria Azarenka, Dinara Safina, Jelena Jankovic and Flavia Pennetta. Not a chance, you say? Well then I’d settle for a surprise semifinalist a la Yanina Wickmayer at the US Open.
5) Who won’t even show up?
Oddsmakers give Wickmayer, who won the Auckland warmup, a fairly good chance of winning (she’s among their top 15 picks), though it’s not a given she’ll even make the main draw. Entries were closed by the time her one-year doping ban was suspended, and wildcards were given out to Henin and others. Wickmayer will have to make it through the qualifying tournament to get to the main draw.
Then there are lingering injuries to think about. Vera Zvonareva, who was playing so well and reached the No. 5 ranking after last year’s Australian Open, is still recovering from an ankle injury and retired in her first-round match in Sydney. Will she be better in time for the Australian Open? And what about last year’s finalist, Dinara Safina, who spent much of last year in the Number 1 spot in the WTA rankings (if not in Serena’s heart)? She pulled out of the year-end championships and her first tournament this year owing to a back injury. She’s playing singles and doubles in Sydney, but has she fully recovered? It seems unlikely she’ll pull out of the Australian Open, but if she does, she could use the time to get stronger for the French Open, which will be here sooner than we think.