Women’s preview: filling the breach

Serena Williams is not usually a player to do things by halves, but that is precisely how her 2010 season ending up playing out. She began by winning her fifth Australian Open title, was ranked No.1 in the world until October and yet spent the second half of the year sidelined with the foot injury which will also stop her from defending her title at Melbourne Park.Such is the power of Williams’ tennis and her personality that it is not a gap which is easily filled, but there are plenty of others who can and will make the most of her absence, just as they did in the latter half of 2010.

Kim Clijsters romped to her second consecutive US Open title – and her third overall – and immediately set her mind to winning what would be her first Grand Slam title away from her beloved Flushing Meadows. Given her prowess on hard courts, she is likely to begin this Australian Open as nominal favourite to win the title.

Justine Henin, who Williams beat in the 2010 final in Melbourne, has also been forced off the court with a long-standing injury, in her case an elbow problem which flared up at Wimbledon. Unlike Williams, she will be fit to play at Melbourne Park and as a former champion is another with a strong claim on the trophy.

Experience may give the likes of Clijsters and Henin an edge. It’s the same edge that will be enjoyed by Francesca Schiavone, who inspired late bloomers everywhere by winning her first Grand Slam at the age of 27 at Roland Garros. We will learn this coming season whether Schiavone’s Parisian fairytale was a one-off or not but she is certainly very capable on all surfaces, including the bold blue Plexicushion of Melbourne Park.

The woman she beat in Paris, Australia’s heroine Samantha Stosur, is sure to be celebrated when she walks on court for her first match of this Australian Open. As well as becoming Australia’s first female Grand Slam finalist for 30 years, she broke into the top 5 in July and, in doing so, became her country’s highest ranked player since Wendy Turnbull.

Stosur reached the fourth round of the 2010 Australian Open before running into Williams and what she learned from being seeded at her home Grand Slam and the way she dealt with the inherent pressure that ensues should help her this time around. If that forehand of hers is firing and Melburnians provide a suitably rousing soundtrack of cheers, then Stosur could be one to watch.

Perhaps, by now, we should have mentioned Caroline Wozniacki, who is likely to be top seed at the Australian Open after ending the season as world No.1. She has produced consistent excellence on the WTA Tour and has the ranking points to prove it, but Wozniacki has yet to win a Grand Slam. She has been a runner-up at the 2009 US Open (she was also a semi-finalist in 2010) and also reached the final of the 2010 year-end WTA Tour Championships, where she lost to Clijsters in a compelling final.

The Championships were also marked by a touching moment when two-time Grand Slam finalist Elena Dementieva announced her retirement, to the surprise and dismay of fans and pros alike. Fortunately, for Russian tennis at least, plenty of her compatriots remain, notably Vera Zvonareva, who made the finals of Wimbledon and the US Open and ended a stellar 2010 season ranked No.2 behind Wozniacki.
Maria Sharapova’s season was, by her high standards, somewhat quiet, though she did enough to get herself back into the top 20 after a long battle back from injury and appears poised to make more impact from here on in, possibly starting in Melbourne.

She and Ana Ivanovic both have the potential to produce the kind of emotional comeback stories that the Australian Open seems to specialise in. The same might be said for 30-year-old Venus Williams, who made the semifinals of Wimbledon and ensured that she and her sister were, for a time, ranked No.1 and No.2 in the world once again. Also worth noting is the Williams sisters’ astonishing doubles record, which continued to gather kudos thanks to victories at Melbourne Park and Roland Garros.

Serena’s absence means that neither the singles nor the doubles titles will be defended at this year’s Australian Open and the tournament will have new champions as a result.

source: Australian Open 2011