At the 2011 Australian Open, on the women's side, a sense of change is in the air. Most obvious, of course, is the absence of five-time (and defending) champion Serena Williams, whose foot injury caused her to withdraw. It is common tennis wisdom that if Williams is in Melbourne, she is probably going to win. But she isn't there, which opens the field.
The virtually unanimous choice to win this year is 2010 U.S. Open champion Kim Clijsters. Clijsters has never won the Australian Open, though she reached the final in 2004, and the semifinals in 2002, 2003, 2006, and 2007. Two of her losses were to Justine
Henin; the others were to Monica Seles, Amelie Mauresmo and Maria Sharapova. Henin is not in Clijster's half of the draw, so those hoping for a major all-Belgian clash could have their hopes realized. Or not.
Clijsters begins her Melbourne campaign in an odd way: She plays former Australian Open finalist Dinara Safina. Thrill Ride just hasn't been herself since her back betrayed her, but she isn't playing badly, either, and she really has nothing to lose. As a warm-up, this is the best possible type of match for Clijsters. Also in her quarter is 13th seed Nadia Petrova, who demolished Clijsters 6-0, 6-1 in the third round in Melbourne last year. In addition, Clijster's quarter of the draw features 19th seed and 2008 finalist Ana Ivanovic.
Henin is in the first quarter of the draw, where the competition is tough. Top seed Caroline Wozniacki is there, plus such difficult opponents as Dominika Cibulkova, Yanina Wickmayer, Jarmila Groth (Wickmayer plays Groth in the first round, so one of them will be gone soon), Marion Bartoli, Svetlana Kuznetsova, and Francesca Schiavone.
Victoria Azarenka has been working on fitness issues, though the Australian Open is the worst possible tournament for testing one's fitness, what with the excessive heat. Last year and the year before, Azarenka came close to taking out Serena Williams. Will this be the year that the Belarusian star meets expectations, or will she wilt in one way or another?
Depending on who is doing the reporting, Maria Sharapova and longtime coach Michael Joyce have either "taken a break" from each other, or he is no longer her coach. So Joyce's co-coaching arrangement with Thomas Hogstedt is either not a factor in Melbourne, or perhaps not a factor at all. Tennis "news" (like the regular news) is so filled with unchecked rumors that I'm presenting both scenarios as possible realities. At any rate, Sharapova, the 2008 champion, is vulnerable, and is sharing a quarter of the draw with 4th seed Venus Williams, Sydney champion Li Na and Azarenka. Also lurking in that quarter are Kaia Kanepi and Andrea Petkovic. Daniela Hantuchova is there, too, and the Australian Open has always been her strength among majors; however, she has also been struggling for several weeks with an Achilles tendon injury.
Vera Zvonareva was the finalist in the last two majors, but she under-performed in both finals. Still, Zvonareva has to be considered a contender to win in Melbourne. Her quarter includes 5th seed and home country favorite Sam Stosur, Brisbane champion Petra Kvitova, Flavia Pennetta, and Maria Kirilenko. Stosur has experienced a disappointing start to her season, and there is undoubtedly a lot of pressure on her to perform well in Australia.
Finally, no discussion of the season's first major would be complete without mentioning top seed Caroline Wozniacki, who is in the same tough quarter as Henin, and who first has to get past the streaky Argentine, Gisela Dulko, in the opening round. Wozniacki lost to Dominika Cibulkova in the first round of the Medibank International in Sydney, and and she also lost to Zvonareva and Clijsters in exhibition events. It hasn't a been a good season so far, but the world number 1 told the press "It didn't really affect me." With regard to her number 1 status, she said "I don't have to prove anything."
She doesn't. The ranking system is not the responsibility of Wozniacki, Safina, Jankovic, or any consistently good player who attains the spot without winning a major. But I don't think any reasonable person believes that Wozniacki is not feeling some pressure, no matter what she says to the press.
The chances are high that we will have a first-time champion. Clijsters? Wozniacki? Zvonareva? Azarenka? Henin, of course, could win her second Australian Open title. Or will we have another surprise?
(Art courtesy of Bobbie Peachey)