The clock may have reset, but your confidence continues. @Petra_Kvitova pic.twitter.com/hdpbYXa4Kz
— Nike Tennis (@NikeTennis) January 17, 2015
Sharapova: "I lost in the 4th round here (last year). That's not a result I want. I'm here to try and win the title." pic.twitter.com/titTh1h3MK
— Tennis (@tennis_photos) January 17, 2015
For the past several years, we have gone into each major (except the French) with world number 1 Serena Williams as the presumed favorite. But not this year. Because Williams, at 32 years of age, appears to actually be winding down. Bear in mind that her version of "winding down" is to win the U.S. Open and the WTA Finals, which means she cannot be counted out. However, the words "Maria Sharapova" have suddenly appeared in a kind of happy cloud over Melbourne.
Can 'Pova do it? Maybe, but the contest is open. The Russian's performance in Brisbane has fans and the sports media talking, and Sharapova's chances right now are better than they've been in a while at any major other than the French Open (that still sounds odd doesn't it?). She has a pretty good draw, but--like all draws--it isn't lacking in danger. For example, the 2nd seed is on a path to meet Genie Bouchard in the quarterfinals, and promoters and members of the sports press are probably already in need of napkins to control the drooling.
If it gets to that, I like Sharapova to advance to the semis, but will it get to that? Bouchard may have to deal with a couple of feisty characters, and at least one formidable character--either Carla Suarez Navarro or Angelique Kerner--in that quarter of the draw. I think a Kerber-Bouchard match could be huge, assuming the more positive of the "two Kerbers" shows up. Also, Sharapova will probably have to deal with Lucie Safarova, and--given Safarova's recent play against her--that could get tricky.
Then there's the matter of Serena Williams. Can Sharapova finally beat her again or will Williams have to be removed from the draw by someone else? I'm inclined to think the latter would have to occur. Williams' nemeses (Azarenka, Muguruza, Cornet--and former nemesis Jankovic) just happen to be in her quarter, as is her friend Caroline Wozniacki. Interesting.
But Sharapova isn't the only woman who is in a good position to win in Melbourne. Sydney champion Petra Kvitova is as ready as she's ever been to win something that isn't Wimbledon. Fit and confident (and given a tough and thorough workout and warmup by countrywoman Karolina Pliskova in the Syndney final), the Barking Czech has "that look" this season. She has Alex Stober to keep an eye on her health, and her demeanor is one of a calmer person than we've seen in the past. Kvitova now holds 15 WTA titles, and finally appears to be wearing her believe shoes proudly.
As for the draw, Kvitova doesn 't have anyone in her quarter she can't handle, though there are a few who could give her trouble. Venus Williams is the one who can give her the most trouble. Aga Radwanska is in Kvitova's quarter, and that could be a better match than some would expect. Sam Stosur is in that quarter, too, but she would have to be having a very good day to get past Kvitova. Oh, wait, this is Australia--never mind.
Simona Halep is also a major contender for the Melbourne title, despite the popular tendency to "save" her as a French Open favorite (which she most certainly will be). But Halep has the draw from hell. In her quarter are Ana Ivanovic, Karolina Pliskova and Ekaterina Makarova. And just to spice things up, Belinda Bencic and "when she's hot, she's hot" Kiki Mladenovic are there, also. I think the most dangerous player in Halep's quarter is Makarova (I know, on paper, it's Ivanovic). And after her Sydney outing, Pliskova is red hot. There should be some tasty matches in the Halep quarter, for sure.
Also worth watching in Melbourne: Elina Svitolina, Tsvetana Pironkova (in Serena's quarter), 2014 runner-up Dominika Cibulkova, Varvara Lepchenko, Daria Gavrilova, Ana Konjuh, Camila Giorgi, Zarina Diyas.
First round matches of note:
Timea Bacsinszky vs. Jelena Jankovic
Tsvetana Pironkova vs. Heather Watson
Taylor Townsend vs. Caroline Wozniacki
Madison Brengle vs. Andrea Petkovic
Favia Pennetta vs. Camila Giorgi
Lauren Davis vs. Aleksandra Krunic
Sabine Lisicki vs. Kiki Mladenovic
Zarina Diyas vs. Urszula Radwanska
One final note: The draw, like it or not, was made physically possible by the effort of the great Li Na, who also provided the most verbally efficient draw analysis in history. Can she come back and do it every year? Please?