Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The first Grand Slam event of 2013
will get underway next week and Victoria Azarenka will head to Melbourne in
hopes of defending her lone career Grand Slam title at the Australian Open.
"Vika" finally landed in that elusive first-ever Grand Slam final last year
in Melbourne, and she made it count with a big victory over former champion
and former world No. 1 Maria Sharapova.
With the win, Azarenka landed atop the WTA rankings for the first time in her
career and has remained there for just about every week since then.
The Belarusian star also would go on to reach her first-ever U.S. Open final,
but it was there she ran into the world's true No. 1 player ... Serena
Williams has flat out been on fire since a shocking first-round loss at the
hands of French journeywoman Virginie Razzano at Roland Garros last May.
Since that stunning "L," the powerful third-ranked American has won the titles
at Wimbledon, Stanford, the London Olympics, the U.S. Open, the WTA
Championships and in Brisbane, Australia, which occurred just last week in a
season-opening tourney. With the exception of a quarterfinal setback in
Cincinnati last summer, the 31-year-old Williams has basically captured every
tournament she's entered since June.
Can she be stopped?
Serena will head to Melbourne as the favorite, having won everything in sight
over the last seven months (five, if you subtract the offseason). And she's
already captured an Open Era-record five Aussie Open titles during her
brilliant career, or five of the last 10 championships Down Under.
She also just so happens to be a perfect 5-0 when reaching the final at Rod
Notes: Only Margaret Court (11) and Nancye Wynne Bolton (6) own more overall
Aussie crowns than Serena (who's tied with Daphne Akhurst). Court captured a
record seven straight at one point (1960-66) back in the Amateur Era.
Serena boasts 15 Grand Slam singles titles overall and currently holds half of
the major hardware, following her 2012 Wimbledon and U.S. Open success.
By the way, the high-flying Serena is 11-1 lifetime against Azarenka,
including wins in their last nine meetings.
You tell me who's No. 1.
The aforementioned Sharapova will be the second seed at the Aussie fortnight.
The Russian superstar is a former Oz Open champ (2008) and a two-time runner-
up, including last year's bridesmaid finish to Azarenka. "Shaza" lost to Serena
in the 2007 final.
Sharapova, who appeared in a pair of major finals as well as the Olympic gold-
medal match last season, completed a career Grand Slam by titling at the
French Open last year and is certainly among the favorites at Melbourne Park
this time around.
Wimbledon runner-up Agnieszka Radwanska also figures to be a contender. An
Aussie quarterfinalist last year, the chess-playing-like Polish world No. 4 is
fresh off her title in Auckland last week and has been as steady as anyone on
tour over the last couple of years.
Germany is in the house with left-handed star Angelique Kerber, who rocketed
up the charts last year after being inspired by a U.S. Open semifinal
appearance in 2011. Angie reached her second major semi at Wimbledon, was a
quarterfinalist at the French Open last year, and figures to improve upon her
third-round showing at the Aussie.
How about seventh-ranked Li Na? The Chinese slugger has been surging for
months, this after some struggles following her French Open championship run
The 30-year-old Li just won a title in her native land in Shenzhen last week
and can beat anybody on tour when her lethal groundstrokes are catching lines.
Note: There were three WTA tournaments last week and all three were won by
Top-10 players (Serena, Radwanska and Li), which was a first-time occurrence
on the tour.
The women's Top 10 is rounded out by diminutive French Open runner-up Sara
Errani; former Wimbledon champ/Czech southpaw Petra Kvitova; former U.S. Open
winner Sam Stosur; and former world No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki.
The gritty Italian Errani typically plays her best tennis on clay, but she's
no slouch on the hardcourts, either. She reached the Aussie quarters on the
Plexicushion in Melbourne and a U.S. Open semi on the DecoTurf in New York
last year, so she's definitely in the mix.
Kvitova is an up-and-down player capable of beating anybody on one of her good
days. The heavy Aussie crowd favorite Stosur has no shot in Melbourne, where
she's a career 14-10, including a first-round loss a year ago, and has failed
to reach the quarters in 10 tries. Wozniacki appears to have peaked two years
ago on her way to the second of back-to-back year-end-No. 1 finishes. The
Danish star reached the Aussie semis in 2011, but exited in the quarters last
Serena's fellow former No. 1/big sister Venus will head to Australia (where
temperatures reached a broiling 106 degrees in Sydney this week) as a seed
(No. 25), but her Grand Slam winning days are in the rear-view mirror. The 32-
year-old appeared in her lone Aussie final 10 long years ago (lost to Serena)
and hasn't advanced beyond the quarters there ever since. "V" skipped last
year's Aussie extravaganza due to injuries and illness.
The last major victory for the seven-time major titlist Venus came at Wimbledon
five years ago, and she hasn't appeared in a Grand Slam semi since the 2010
Are there any dark horses on the women's side, you ask? No. But maybe keep an
eye on rising American Sloane Stephens, a 19-year-old African-American from
Florida whose father was the late former NFL Pro Bowl running back John
Stephens (who died in a car accident in Louisiana in 2009).
Australia has produced a record 43 women's singles champions in Oz, but an
Aussie woman hasn't captured the title there since Chris O'Neil back in
1978. American Betsy Nagelsen came up short in that particular finale.
The U.S., however, owns an Open Era-record 15 women's singles titles at the
Note: The first Australian Open (or Australasian Championships) was staged in
1905 at Warehouseman's Cricket Ground and also has been played in New Zealand.
If I have to pick a winner, I'm pickin' Serena to hoist the Akhurst Memorial
Cup for a sixth time in 11 years.
The newest women's Aussie champ will collect a staggering $2.5 million.
The Sports Network