We’re mere hours from the start of the 2011 Australian Open. The preview is coming late, and this is the first time in four years that I’m not linked into cable television for the tournament. (For all my gripes about television, the main one is the cost — yet somehow it ended up that my wife and I were plugged at that moment in three different domiciles in three consecutive years.) I’m also without internet at the house still, over a month removed from the move that will provide some salvation in that department. So what this tournament means to me this year in personal terms is something that has yet to be determined.
It’s really quite sad, because the Australian might just be my favorite of the four Grand Slam tournaments on the tennis calendar. It broadcasts at times amenable to my deranged sleep cycles, and tennis is the sport my wife and I seem to be able to most consistently get into together as spectators. There’s always the new-year feel to things, the summertime turning our winter upside down here in Eugene and players arriving Down Under in varying states of fitness. Anything is possible when the men and women hit the courts in Melbourne, as the next fortnight will attest. To give you my nickel’s worth on things, here are the five big stories I see on the women’s side:
- How will Serena’s absence affect this year’s Aussie? — Say what you will about Serena Williams. Yes, she only seems to play when she wants… but rarely does that mean eschewing the opportunity to play on the four biggest stages that tennis has to offer. For all the loafing that Serena does between Grand Slam tournaments, she has been one of the greatest women in the Open era at turning up her game when the stakes are highest. It has affected her world rankings at times, as she struggles to maintain the requisite points at lesser tournaments to match her prodigious talent that is so readily displayed at the Opens and Wimbledon.
Alas, the younger of the Williams sisters is absent from this year’s draw, still recovering from the foot injury that kept her out of the latter half of 2010. It leaves the draw without its defending champion, and immediately opens the door for any and all contenders to feel like they have an even greater chance at conquering Melbourne. From last year’s vanquished finalist, Justine Henin, to the most lightly-regarded qualifiers, a little breathing room opens up for everyone when Serena isn’t in a Grand Slam draw. It also makes it all the more likely that we’ll see a surprise champion swoop in and take her stab at a shocker.
- Can Clijsters bring some focus to the WTA rankings? — Kim Clijsters made waves two summers ago when she returned to the sport of tennis after a prolonged hiatus to settle into marriage and motherhood, coming on with a vengeance to take the past two U.S. Open titles in Flushing Meadows. But while the Belgian has proven she can win on hardcourt surfaces, she has continued to come up short in Melbourne both before and after her curtailed retirement from the sport.
Last year she was slaughtered 6-0 6-1 in the third round by Nadia Petrova, ending what began as a promising run as she plowed through Valerie Tetreault and Tamarine Tanasugarn before being felled by the Russian before the middle weekend. A tough opener against Dinara Safina — an enigma in her own right, the former world #1 yo-yoing right into an unseeded position this year after being the #2 seed in 2010 — presents a tough way to start such a challenge. Worse yet, Petrova will likely be waiting right there ready to pounce should my predictions hold and they both advance to the fourth round. Exorcising those demons in the first weekend of play would go a long way toward settling Clijsters’ confidence going into the deep rounds of the bracket. If she can get past there, a run all the way to the final is imminently possible given how the lower half of the draw stacks up.
- Will Wozniacki or Zvonareva finally claim a Slam? — They’re the top two players in the world at the moment, but between them they have zero Grand Slam titles between them. I speak, of course, about #1 seed Caroline Wozniacki and #2 seed Vera Zvonareva. The former has spent the better part of the past year locked into the top ranking in the world despite reaching just one Grand Slam final so far in her career and falling woefully short along the way. The young Dane’s time at the top has been one part the erratic tournament scheduling of the other top female stars, one part Wozniacki’s willingness to show up and play seemingly anywhere. Her ranking to this point has been little more than a paper tiger, a testament to her consistency and durability more than her shows of true excellence. A relatively light draw should seemingly give her a clear roadmap to at least the quarterfinals, but her relative lack of success in these situations is troubling for someone so highly regarded the rest of the year.
Already Zvonareva, in just one charmed run through the latter half of 2010, has seen more Grand Slam finals than the woman spotted ahead of her in the WTA rankings. But after losing both the Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals, one has to wonder if Zvonareva is (and the same goes for Wozniacki) little more than a bundle of consistent results packaged as something more thanks to the tabulations of the computer. The question is even more worth asking given Zvonareva has a decade of Grand Slam play on her career already. Prior to last season’s late surge, she had made just one quarterfinal and one semifinal in 29 Grand Slam tournaments, failing to advance out of the middle weekend on every other occasion. With the highest ranking of her career, she has the benefit of a draw that in theory should guide her to the elite eight. But with a potential showdown against Maria Kirilenko in the fourth round and/or Samantha Stosur in the quarterfinals, there are no guarantees that her hot streak will continue.
- Can the veterans stave off the youth movement? — From Belgian contenders (and fellow un-retirees) Clijsters and Henin and Venus Williams down to players like Nadia Petrova, there is a lot of experienced depth in the field even despite the absence of Serena. Jelena Jankovic, Ana Ivanovic and Svetlana Kuznetsova also remain dangerous. But with players like Wozniacki, Victoria Azarenka and home-crowd favorite Samantha Stosur doing their damnedest to nab the next generation as their own, will this year’s Australian Open serve as a changing of the guard?
Last year it was the veterans’ time to shine, with Serena knocking off Henin in the final. Last year we had Serena winning in Melbourne and London, journeywoman Francesca Schiavone shocking everyone en route to the title at Roland Garros and Clijsters repeating in Queens. Among the eight Grand Slam finalists last season, all were at least 25 years old and had spent the better part of the past decade on the professional tour. So unless one of the younger ladies can finally reach out and snatch a Grand Slam title, the second decade of the 21st century is going to look an awful lot like the first one did.
- Who’s the darkhorse? — Every year there’s somebody who emerges from the woodwork and elevates her game to the next level. Sometimes the darkhorse of the tournament is a veteran who chips away at the field. Sometimes it is a bright, on-the-rise star who presages bigger things to come with one upset after another. This year? I have a feeling that all the doubles success in 2010 is going to help vault Vania King’s game to greater heights.
“What?!” I hear you all asking. “You’re projecting a 21-year-old with a career 9-18 record in Grand Slam singles — including 1-3 in just three tries in Melbourne — to make waves in her draw?!” Well… yes. After a summer campaign in doubles that saw the young American take the women’s doubles championships at both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open with Kazakh partner Yaroslava Shvedova, I have some sort of weird hunch about King. Call me skeptical, but I don’t think this is Wozniacki’s tournament to lose in the top quadrant of the draw. I could see the unseeded Yankee ultimately advancing all the way through to the quarterfinals, where she will find a much sterner test awaiting her in former world #1 Justine Henin.
Previewing the 2010 Australian Open: Women’s Edition is a post originally from: SportsNickel.com - In Sports We Trust