The Human Caveat
MELBOURNE—When was the last time that one tour was dominated to the extent that Serena Williams is dominating, both as player and personality, the WTA right now? I think you have to go back to Roger Federer’s three-Slam 2004, the year before Rafael Nadal staked out his own slice of ATP turf. Over the last two years, Serena has turned a viable Big 3 into a monarchical Big 1, and never allowed anyone to seriously claim to be her rival. There’s no one right now whom we can mention with Serena.
This may not be ideal for producing classic Grand Slam finals, but it does make it exciting when Serena is challenged. It’s hard to think of two matches on either tour last year that were as riveting, dramatically, as the ones she lost to Sloane Stephens in Australia and Sabine Lisicki at Wimbledon. And when Serena does come through and win, we have the satisfaction of seeing something that feels meant to be, that feels right.
In short, when you talk about women’s tennis these days, you can’t mention anyone—not Maria, not Vika, not Li Na—without mentioning Serena first. And you can’t preview a women’s major without first making the obligatory caveat that “if Serena plays her best, she’ll win.” But that doesn’t mean any tournament, and especially any pressure-packed tournament, is a mortal lock for her.
Which will we see at the Australian Open, the logic of a Williams win, or the shock of a Williams loss? Either way, it will be the decisive match of the tournament. Let’s see what the draw has to say.
Serena’s opener is interesting in that it comes against a teenage prospect from Australia, Ashleigh Barty. But on paper it gets routine again until the round of 16. That's when she could face Sam Stosur, who has beaten Serena three times—though Stosur didn’t show that kind of form in losing to Klara Zakopalova, 6-3, 6-2, in Hobart this week. Even worse for Sam, she’ll have to play Zakopalova again in the first round in Melbourne. Whether it’s the local pressure or the lack of match practice, Stosur's struggles at home seem likely to continue.
The highest seed on the other side here is Sara Errani; after last year’s beatdown for the ages at the French Open, Serena would surely relish seeing the Italian in the quarterfinals next week. But there are other intriguing names in Errani’s half, mostly young ones: Madison Keys, Eugenie Bouchard, and Laura Robson. Ana Ivanovic, a tournament winner last week, has a nice draw and could find her way to the fourth round. And Serena.
Williams should be motivated. She loves winning in Oz, but she hasn’t done it in an improbably long four years.
Sleeper: Tsvetana Pironkova. She won her first career title in Sydney on Saturday, without dropping a set, and could play Stosur in the second round in Melbourne. You never know when Pironkova is going to become very, very tough to beat.
Semifinalist: S. Williams
Is this the year of Li Na? Nearly 32, she had her most consistent season in 2013 and finished a career-high No. 3. She's also already won her first tournament of this season, in Shenzhen. But let’s take it one step at a time: Is this the Aussie Open of Li Na? That seems distinctly possible. China’s No. 1 has been to the finals here twice.
Her draw shouldn't hurt. Li might play Kimiko Date-Krumm in the second round, could face a solid challenge from Sabine Lisicki in the fourth round, and would likely have her hands full with Petra Kvitova in the quarters. This will be our first sign of how high Li can climb in her late-career ascension, and how much she and her coach, Carlos Rodriguez, can improve and refine her game after 30.
Players to watch:
—Angelique Kerber, finalist in Sydney.
—Donna Vekic, a talked-about teen who may be due for an upset; she’s near Li Na in the draw.
—Venus Williams, who opens with Ekaterina Makarova. That could be a war.
—Alison Riske, who recorded a fairly impressive win over Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova last week; she plays Elena Vesnina first in Melbourne.
Semifinalist: Li Na
Maria Sharapova is the top seed in this section, but that status didn’t earn her an easy draw. She opens against big-hitting Bethanie Mattek-Sands. They should have a fascinating fashion throwdown, if nothing else—the branded versus the bizarre. The rest of Sharapova’s half here appears to be more mundane: Suarez-Navarro and Cibulkova are the other two seeds.
Like Murray and Federer, Sharapova is a fast starter and an Oz lover, but there’s uncertainty this time. She has a new coach and a still-creaky shoulder. While she’s hardly played anything since last summer, Sharapova didn’t seem to suffer much in her semifinal run in Brisbane last week. One player who could give Maria trouble is Jelena Jankovic. The eighth seed also made the semis in Brisbane, where she lost to Victoria Azarenka, 6-4 in the third set.
Players of interest: Simona Halep, who is on Jankovic’s side, and Camila Giorgi, who is on Sharapova’s
Semifinalist: Jelena Jankovic
It might be hard to remember now in this Season of Serena, but Victoria Azarenka is the two-time defending champion in Melbourne. She also bounced back from a late-season fizzle in 2013 to make the Brisbane final last week and give Serena a good two-set run there. Vika is obviously still up for that challenge.
She should also be up for beating the players in her quarter. Those could include Jamie Hamption, who took a set from Azarenka here last year, and Sloane Stephens, who made her work, and get famously tight, in the semifinals. But Stephens has to get there first. She opens with the athletic Yaroslava Shvedova, and could play Svetlana Kuznetsova in the third round. We'll see how Sloane handles the back-of-the-mind pressure of having to defend a lot of points—which is another way of saying that you're trying to match up to yourself. If she loses early, after last year's semi here, her ranking will drop.
At the top of this quarter is Agnieszka Radwanska, whose draw likely comes as a disappointment to her. To reach her first semi here, the fifth seed will probably have to beat Vika, the player in the Top 4 she’s farthest from beating—Azarenka has relished winning her last 12 sets over her former friend. Aga begins with the theatrical spark plug (if such a thing exists) Yulia Putintseva, which could be entertaining.
Two young players I’ve wanted to see more of:
—Elina Svitolina, who opens against Kuznetsova
—Garbine Muguruza, a young Spaniard with a heavy-hitting game who is in the final in Hobart this weekend. She plays Kanepi first.
Sleeper: Caroline Wozniacki
Semifinals: S. Williams d. Li Na; Azarenka d. Jankovic
Final: S. Williams d. Azarenka