Your guide to the 2014 Australian Open: the women

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    Should Serena Williams have a chance to play in the final match of the Australian Open? (AP Photo/Andrew Brownbill)

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    There are now just under four days left until the Australian Open begins and while the focus will be on Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka as they fight it out for supremacy in Melbourne, there will also be some other big names to watch out for over the next two weeks.

    Already, Williams has fired the first shot of 2014 by winning the title in Brisbane, defeating Azarenka in that final to deal a big blow to the Belarusian’s hopes of trying to win a third consecutive title at Melbourne Park

    Williams, for her part, has not triumphed in Melbourne since 2010, but here presents a good opportunity to win title number six down under, having fallen in the quarter-finals last year, as well as the fourth round in 2012.

    Maria Sharapova is also expected to contend as she bids for a second title in Melbourne to follow up the one she won so impressively in 2008, but her preparations took a hit when she lost to Williams for the thirteenth consecutive time in the semi-finals in Brisbane.

    And of course, there are also a few others to watch out for as well. So, without further ado, let’s have a look at who is expected to contend for the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup, which will be presented to the champion this year.

    Serena Williams
    Current world ranking: 1

    Australian Open history:
    Best result: Won (2003, 2005, 2007, 2009, 2010)
    Last year: Quarter-finals

    Titles in the last 12 months:
    Brisbane, Miami, Charleston, Madrid, Rome, French Open, Bastad, Toronto, US Open, Beijing, WTA Tour Championships (2013), Brisbane (2014)

    Grand Slam results last year:
    Australian Open: Quarter-finals
    French Open: Won
    Wimbledon: Round of 16
    US Open: Won

    If successfully defending the title in Brisbane is anything to go by, then 2014 will be a short year for Serena Williams, but a long one for her rivals, led by Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova, as they try to take her down in full force.

    In the present era, Williams’ phenomenal 2013 season, in which she captured eleven titles, including the French and US Opens, and banked over $12 million in prize money, will remain unrivalled for at least the next decade.

    This coming from a woman who was very close to death after she stepped on some broken glass at a German restaurant shortly after winning Wimbledon in 2010. What a comeback it has been.

    This year, Williams will have to buck a terrible omen if she is to continue on her merry way in 2014.

    The last two times she has started a year ranked world number one (2003 and 2010), she has won the Australian Open and Wimbledon, before not playing again for the remainders of those years.

    If the trend is to continue, Serena will successfully triumph at the Australian Open and Wimbledon, but she may want to be a bit careful after winning the latter.

    As far as her chances at the Australian Open are concerned, and as has been in the last 18 months, Williams is not expected to be threatened until at least the quarter-finals, but could face a tricky opponent in the form of Sabine Lisicki in the fourth round.

    It was the German who not only sent her crashing out of the All England Club six months ago, but also prevented her from equaling her older sister Venus’ 35-match winning streak, which was compiled in 2000.

    A rematch with Sloane Stephens could also be on the cards, while she could also bump into recent Auckland champion Ana Ivanovic before the quarter-finals. But regardless, expect to see Serena go deep in Melbourne.

    Prediction: Champion

    Victoria Azarenka
    Current world ranking: 2

    Australian Open history:
    Best result: Won (2012, 2013)
    Last year: Won

    Titles in the last 12 months:
    Australian Open, Doha, Cincinnati

    Grand Slam results last year:
    Australian Open: Won
    French Open: Semi-finals
    Wimbledon: Second round
    US Open: Finalist

    If Serena Williams does not win this year’s Australian Open, then Victoria Azarenka will.

    The former world number one and currently ranked second behind Williams will enter this year’s championships with the chance to become the first woman since Martina Hingis in 1997-9 to salute three times in a row.

    She won’t enter this year as the favourite but she won’t mind. She had been drawn to face Williams in last year’s semi-finals but found herself facing Sloane Stephens instead – on her way to successfully defending the title which she won in 2012.

    Even so, she had to successfully retain the title or risk losing her world number one ranking – which she eventually did unwillingly despite successfully defending another title in Doha (beating Williams in that final).

    The Belarussian’s other title of 2013 came at Cincinnati, where she defeated Williams again, this time in a final set tiebreak. She reached three other finals during the year, losing to Williams in Rome and the US Open, as well as against Samantha Stosur in Carlsbad.

    But even though she is second in the world rankings, and recently lost the final to Williams in Brisbane, Azarenka will still remain a scary prospect for her rivals, especially in the fourth round, where she could gain a rematch against Stephens, or face either Wimbledon finalist Sabine Lisicki or recent Auckland champion Ana Ivanovic.

    She will also have to face one of Maria Sharapova or Li Na in the semi-finals; both of Azarenka’s Australian Open titles came at their expense in 2012 and 2013 respectively.

    The big question for Azarenka will be whether she can capture a third straight title in 2014, or fall bridesmaid to Williams.

    Prediction: Finalist

    Maria Sharapova
    Current world ranking: 3

    Australian Open history:
    Best result: Won (2008)
    Last year: Semi-finals

    Titles in the last 12 months:
    Indian Wells, Stuttgart (2013)

    Grand Slam results last year:
    Australian Open: Semi-finals
    French Open: Finalist
    Wimbledon: Second round
    US Open: Did not play

    Someone who loves to save their best Grand Slam tennis for the Australian Open is none other than 2008 champion Maria Sharapova.

    Last year, Sharapova won back-to-back matches by the deadly scoreline of 6-0, 6-0 and also thrashed Venus Williams on the way to reaching the semi-finals, where she could only win four games against Li Na.

    That was one more than what she managed against Victoria Azarenka in the 2012 final.

    Sharapova has what it takes to win in Melbourne. The Russian is the last woman to win the title in Melbourne without dropping a set; that came back in 2008, when she bulldozed her way through the likes of Lindsay Davenport, Elena Dementieva, Justine Henin, Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic to earn redemption for the previous year’s heavy defeat to Serena Williams, who was then ranked 81st in the world.

    The Russian is returning from a long-term shoulder injury which forced her absence from last year’s US Open onwards, and was impressive in her comeback tournament in Brisbane, pushing Williams hard in the second set before capitulating (again) in straight sets.

    It’s unlikely she will add to her four Grand Slam titles in Melbourne but she is expected to once again go deep in the draw. She is guaranteed to avoid Li Na in the semi-finals but will have to face one of Williams or Azarenka, to whom Sharapova lost to in the 2007 and 2012 finals respectively.

    Question is: can she challenge one of the two and avenge those losses?

    Prediction: Semi-finals

    Li Na
    Current world ranking: 4

    Australian Open history:
    Best result: Finalist (2011, 2013)
    Last year: Finalist

    Titles in the last 12 months:
    Shenzhen (2013, 2014)

    Grand Slam results last year:
    Australian Open: Finalist
    French Open: Second round
    Wimbledon: Quarter-finals
    US Open: Semi-finals

    Someone who loves playing in front of her supporters is Australian Open fan favourite Li Na.

    A finalist in two of the last three years, Li will be hoping that this year is third time lucky as time runs out on her illustrious career, which saw her win the French Open in 2011 and reach a career high world ranking of number three last October.

    Although there was only one title last year, 2013 was still a year of consistency for Li Na, who reached the quarter-finals at all non-clay court tournaments, including reaching the semi-finals of the US Open and the final of the WTA Tour Championships in Istanbul.

    She was also a finalist here last year, in which she lost to Victoria Azarenka in a drama-filled final which included her injuring herself twice, one of which occurred just after the Australia Day fireworks.

    That would eventually cost her two months of the season, not returning until Miami. But as she will be risking a lot of rankings points in Melbourne, she must do very well and then from there she can pick up fresh rankings points at will during the Middle East swing, as well as at Indian Wells.

    Her chances of going deep in the draw could face its first Test in the fourth round, where she could draw one of Sloane Stephens, Ana Ivanovic or Sabine Lisicki.

    Stephens is defending semi-finalist points from last year, Ivanovic almost beat the Chinese in Toronto last August and just recently won in Auckland, and Lisicki has what it takes to upset the big names, such as defeating Li at Wimbledon in 2011.

    She is also guaranteed to avoid Maria Sharapova, whom she beat so impressively in the semi-finals last year, until the final, but will have to face one of Azarenka or Williams there.

    But nevertheless, expect her to make a good run in the draw.

    Prediction: Semi-finals

    Agnieszka Radwanska
    Current world ranking: 5

    Australian Open history:
    Best result: Quarter-finals (2008, 2011, 2012, 2013)
    Last year: Quarter-finals

    Titles in the last 12 months:
    Sydney, Seoul (2013)

    Grand Slam results last year:
    Australian Open: Quarter-finals
    French Open: Quarter-finals
    Wimbledon: Semi-finals
    US Open: Round of 16

    One woman who paid the price for a poor finish to 2013 is Poland’s most successful player, Agnieszka Radwanska.

    Winning in Seoul, and reaching the quarter-finals and semi-finals in Tokyo and Beijing respectively last year eventually took its toll on the 24-year-old Pole as she went winless at the WTA Tour Championships in Istanbul and also lost her Sydney title defence to Bethanie Mattek-Sands this week.

    However, she did go undefeated at the Hopman Cup in singles, but it was not enough to help Poland land its first title in what was their inaugural appearance at the mixed-teams tournament in Perth.

    Radwanska has dropped to fifth in the world rankings and could drop further if she fails to defend her quarter-final points from 2013.

    But after a hat-trick of quarter-finals (as well as in 2008), she will be hoping to go one step further this time, as she tries to break the Grand Slam stranglehold of Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka.

    To take that step further, she need to constantly challenge those two, as well as Maria Sharapova, regularly. She lost to Azarenka in their only meeting in 2013 in Doha, and has only ever beaten Sharapova twice, as recently as Miami 2012.

    Additionally, she has never beaten Williams, and at the rate the American is playing at the moment, that drought may not end any time soon.

    All Agnieszka Radwanska can hope for is another good run at the Australian Open.

    Prediction: Quarter-finals

    Petra Kvitova
    Current world ranking: 6

    Australian Open history
    Best result: Semi-finals (2012)
    Last year: Second round

    Titles in the last 12 months:
    Dubai, Tokyo (2013)

    Grand Slam results last year:
    Australian Open: Second round
    French Open: Third round
    Wimbledon: Quarter-finals
    US Open: Third round

    Arguably the most inconsistent player over the last 12 months has got to be Petra Kvitova.

    At the Grand Slams last year, she lost to players ranked at least 12 places below her in the world rankings, including falling foul of Laura Robson in a thrilling second round match here, in which the final set lasted 20 games.

    She also suffered disappointing losses to Jamie Hampton at Roland Garros, to Kirsten Flipkens at Wimbledon and to Alison Riske at the US Open.

    However, signs of the form that saw her win Wimbledon in 2011 are returning to her game, as evidenced when she defeated Angelique Kerber to win in Tokyo, as well as reaching the semi-finals in Beijing and Istanbul at the back end of the year.

    That late season form carried on into the new year, which saw her go undefeated in singles at the Hopman Cup and reach the semi-finals in Sydney.

    Kvitova is very capable of winning another Grand Slam title but if she wants to add to the solitary title she won at Wimbledon two-and-a-half years ago, she must cut down on her number of early exits at major tournaments and the number of unexpected losses which has plagued her ever since.

    As far as her Australian Open chances go, she will have only a second round performance from last year to defend, so now is the time to not only climb back up the rankings but also show her real potential.

    Prediction: Quarter-finals

    Apart from the six players already mentioned, there are also some dark horses and dangerous floaters to watch out for.

    Serbian pair Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic appear to be heading back up after disappointing stretches in their careers; both won drought-ending titles in Auckland last week and in Bogota last year respectively.

    Top-ranked Italian Sara Errani is also worthy of a mention, though her major results have suffered since being humiliated by Serena Williams at the French Open in June.

    That loss could be said to psychologically damage her career, in the same way Dinara Safina’s career suffered after she was thrashed by Venus Williams at Wimbledon in 2009.

    Angelique Kerber (who by the way has reached the final in Sydney) and Caroline Wozniacki are also expected to feature prominently, but both have not reached a Grand Slam quarter-final in a while.

    And our only hope, Samantha Stosur, is prone to underperforming in Australia, but that is a trend the 2011 US Open champion will hope to buck this year.

    In fact, her three victories at the ongoing Hobart International is the first time since 2011 that she has won more than one match during the Australian summer, and represents her best result anywhere in Australia since 2005.

    After what has been a good start to the season, now it’s time to sit back and enjoy the big names take centre stage at the Australian Open in Melbourne. Who do you think will take out the women’s title this year?

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