Aussie Open Women's Preview: Has the WTA's Big 3 Turned to Serena's Big 4?

by: Steve Tignor | January 12, 2013

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MELBOURNE—It’s hard to find a better example of how quickly the conversation around tennis can change than what has happened in the women’s game over the first 12 days of January. When the year began, lo those many dozens of hours ago, most writers and observers—or at least this writer and observer—were looking forward to a Year of the New Big 3. Serena Williams, Victoria Azarenka, and Maria Sharapova had split the Slams and the Olympic medals between them in 2012, and formed their own little ruling class at the top of the WTA. Could they keep it up in 2013?
Then came week one in Brisbane. Sharapova hurt her collarbone and pulled out. Azarenka was on the wrong side of the most famous botched pedicure in tennis history and did the same before facing Serena in the semis. A sharp Serena took advantage by smacking away all of the opponents who did bother to show up and play her. Now, a week later, as Melbourne begins, there’s less talk of a Big 3, and more of the Big 4—as in the four Grand Slams, and whether Williams can win them all.
Have we moved on too fast? Is there any reason to think that Serena won’t start her season with her sixth Australian Open title? Let’s go to the draw.
For now, Azarenka keeps her well-earned spot as the No. 1 seed, and is still the defending champion. Vika, who says she’s fit to practice all-out again, opens against Monica Niculescu, a sometimes tricky player who Azarenka has beaten all four times they’ve played (once in a double bagel).
Will Vika face anyone trickier in her quarter? Things could be worse. She scheduled to meet No. 7 Sara Errani in the quarters; she’s 4-1 against the Italian, though they haven’t played since Errani began her surge into the Top 10 last year. In the round of 16, Azarenka might get Errani’s doubles partner Roberta Vinci; she’s 3-0 against her.
Also here: 
No. 10 Caroline Wozniacki, who opens with the best first-rounder of the tournament, against 2011 Wimbledon semifinalist Sabine Lisicki. The last time they played, at Wimbledon in 2009, Lisicki beat her in straights and nearly bumped into her on the final changeover, much to Caro’s chagrin.
No. 21 Varvara Lepchenko, who has gotten off to a slow start in 2013; No. 24 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, who has done the opposite by reaching the final of a very strong field in Brisbane. Do we believe in Pavs yet? She might play American Lauren Davis in the second round.
First-Round Matches to Watch
- The composed Christina McHale vs. loose cannon newcomer Yulia Putintseva of Kazahkstan.
- Big-swinging American Lauren Davis vs. gently rising Urszula Radwanska of Poland.
Players of Interest
- Taiwan’s Su-Wei Hsieh. The 26th seed is in Errani’s half.
- Caroline Garcia of France. Andy Murray once tweeted that this teenager would be No. 1 in the world. It might not have been a great sign for Garcia that he mostly stopped tweeting soon after.
The question on the men’s side was where No. 3 seed Andy Murray would land. The question for the women was where his counterpart in the rankings, Serena Williams (who also happens to be the best player in the world), would end up. Vika got the bad news yesterday; she’s on her side. Literally, not figuratively.
Serena’s draw, as you might expect, doesn’t appear threatening. It also begins with a lot of syllables: She opens against Edina Gallovits-Hall and will play the winner of Magdelena Rybarikova and Garbine Muguruza (I’m putting the latter on my All Name list.) Farther on, Williams could face Yaroslava Shedova, who took her deep into a third set at Wimbledon last year.
On the other side is Petra Kvitova. Coming into this tournament last year, we wondered if she could win the whole thing. This time we’re wondering if she can win a match. After complaining of breathing problems in the Aussie heat, she lost in the second round in Brisbane and was bounced out of Sydney 1 and 1 by Dominika Cibulkova in the first round. She’ll start against Francesca Schiavone and get the winner of Melanie Oudin and Laura Robson.
Oldies but, Potentially, Goodies: Nadia Petrova plays Kimiko Date-Krumm in the first round.
Sleeper: Sloane Stephens. She has mostly looked good in 2013, and could play Kvitova in the third round.
First-Round Match to Watch: Laura Robson vs. Melanie Oudin. From one U.S. Open breakthrough artist to another.
What about Aga? It’s an interesting question. I had thought that she was, as she often is, overplaying when she entered both Auckland and Sydney in the two weeks before Melbourne. Then she won both tournaments, and her double-bagel drubbing of Cibulkova in the Sydney final shouldn’t leave her gasping for air next week. 
Radwanska, a quarterfinalist here last year, opens with Bojana Bobusic of Australia, and has to like her draw overall. The highest seed in her half is the eternally unreliable Ana Ivanovic, while the two Top Tenners and Grand Slam champs in this section, Li Na and Sam Stosur, would have to play each other to reach Radwanska in the quarters. 
What about Li and Sam? The former has been to the final here, and should benefit from some time with new coach Carlos Rodgriguez. But it wasn’t enough in Sydney last week, where she lost to Radwanska in straights in the semis. Her draw seems fine through the first week. As for Stosur, she has suffered her usual rocky start at home, and has the locals concerned for her again. Last year she went out in her opener against Sorana Cirstea. Jie Zheng, Melbourne semifinalist in 2010, might have a chance to do the same to her in the second round this year.
Third-Round Match to Watch, If They Make it That Far: Ivanovic vs. Jelena Jankovic
Sleeper: Mona Barthel. The lanky young German, semifinalist in Auckland and finalist in Hobart this weekend, is playing well again. She opens with a tough one against Ksenia Pervak.
Player of Interest: Heather Watson. She might get Barthel in the second round.
So far this year, Maria Sharapova has sold some candy and made news in the gossip pages. Now she’ll try to move over to the sports section, with a tricky draw in front of her. She begins with Olga Puchkova of Russia, who can hit the ball. She might get Petra Martic in the second round and Venus Williams in the third—Venus, despite her physical struggles in recent years, still owns a 5-4 career record against Maria.
On the other side is No. 5 Angelique Kerber. Does the counterpunching German prefer surfaces faster than the medium-slow Plexicushion in Australia? She has had her best results on the slicker courts at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, and has never been past the third round here. She’s 1-3 lifetime against Sharapova.
Also here: Ekaterina Makarova, winner, if you can remember back that far, over Serena Williams in Oz in 2012. She’s on Kerber’s side.
Teens of Interest
- 17-year-old U.S. prospect Madison Keys, a terrific athlete who seems to be finding her range. She challenged Li in Sydney last week and opens against Casey Dellacqua of Australia.
- 16-year-old Aussie Ashleigh Barty, who starts against Cibulkova.
Semifinals: Azarenka d. S. Williams; Radwanska d. Sharapova. Can Vika really beat Serena? It’s against the odds, certainly; Williams was 5-0 against her in 2012 alone. But Azarenka has been close at the majors—twice in Australia and once in New York—and she should feel good coming back to Laver Arena.
Final: Azarenka d. Radwanska. If this is the final, the recent record will likely speak for itself. Vika has given up just 18 games in winning their last four matches.
CHAMPION: Victoria Azarenka
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