(January 11, 2013) -- Remember 12 months ago when eight – yes, eight -- women entered Melbourne with a chance to become No. 1 in the world? Ironically, the player now considered the overwhelming favorite at this year’s Australian Open wasn’t even on that list. Meanwhile, two young stars, one who reached No.1, the other expected to be the next No.1, may not even get out of the first round as their careers, for the moment, appear to be stuck in neutral.
At the 2013 Australian Open, only three women have an opportunity to earn the coveted top ranking. But before they can get there, they’ll have to navigate a draw filled with rising stars, late bloomers, and most of all, a former finalist who actually loves the blue courts of Melbourne more than the red clay of her greatest triumph.
Top seed Victoria Azarenka will open up her title defense against Romania’s Monica Niculescu. Though seeded players Urzsula Radwanska, Varvara Lepchenko, and Roberta Vinci loom here, if Vika is on her game early, none of these players are expected to threaten her.
It’s the bottom half of Azarenka’s section that will provide more interest and likely more upsets. No. 10 seed Caroline Wozniacki finds her facing big serving Sabine Lisicki in the first round. Wozniacki may have found domestic bliss with boyfriend (fiancé?) Rory McIlroy, but her game has turned stagnant of late and she is ripe to be upset.
No. 7 seed Sara Errani is also in this section, where she could find herself leaving early thanks either to a pair of Russians: Svetlana Kuznetsova and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. Both are playing better ball than they have in a long time.
But no matter who fights their way out of here to face Azarenka in the quarters, it will be Azarenka who marches into yet another Major semi.
S. Williams’s Quarter
Can anybody beat No. 3 seed Serena Williams? That’s the question everyone is asking as the 15-time Major champion seeks to continue her impressive win streak from last year. She takes on Edina Gallovits-Hall to start and then could face No. 28 seed Yaroslava Shvedova in a rematch of their entertaining battle at Wimbledon last year.
Like Azarenka’s section, it’s the bottom half here that’s worth paying attention to. No. 8 seed Petra Kvitova, who has been in a slump, takes on another slumping player in Francesca Schiavone in a first round matchup that could go either way. Kvitova may work her way into the quarters, but look for either Sloane Stephens or Laura Robson to face off against Serena in the last eight.
Serena might be tested, but she appears more than ready for the challenge as she goes for “sweet sixteen”.
Pick: S. Williams
After her double bagel victory to win the Sydney title, No. 4 seed Agnieszka Radwanska looks ready to prove her Wimbledon title run wasn’t a fluke. She might have to face No. 32 seed Mona Barthel who, though streaky, can blast anyone off of the court when she’s on.
Radwanska could also face the winner of a potential third round meeting between Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic. But it’s doubtful the winner of that all-Serbian battle would find a way past the Pole.
The top half here features No. 6 seed Li Na, who reached the finals of Melbourne back in 2011. The veteran Chinese star is playing with more confidence of late and likes playing in Melbourne. Also here is No. 9 seed Sam Stosur, who the locals are hoping will just get past the first round.
Radwanska has all of the momentum right now, but how long can it last? She could reach the semis, but Li is not going to forget that loss to Radwanska in Sydney either.
If we’re going with the assumption that Maria Sharapova’s recent collarbone issue is behind her, then she’s still an overwhelming pick to reach the semis. Of course, many are hoping she books a third round meeting with No. 25 seed Venus Williams in a classic WTA battle that the elder stateswoman of the tour could win.
But if Sharapova’s survives that, whom could she face in the quarters? No. 5 seed Angelique Kerber has looked shaky in her recent events and could get upset early. Perhaps young American hope Madison Keys will continue her good form out of Sydney.
Semifinals: Williams over Azarenka; Li over Sharapova
Winner: Williams over Li
(Photo Credit: Andy Kentla)