The WTA Tour has been in flux ever since Justine Henin’s sudden retirement last season - no question.
Case in point: In 2008 four different ladies hoisted Grand Slam trophies while five different World No.1’s were anointed. Moreover, defending champion Maria Sharapova is still on injured-reserve (since last August) and won’t be making the trip to Melbourne. So the act of picking faves for the ladies’ crown is, uh, challenging to say the least.
But let’s try, shall we?
Without the afore mentioned lady ballers, all talk of non-clay Grand Slam championship runs begins and ends with the Williams sisters, and for good reason. The sisters own a combined 16 majors between them and have both been ranked No.1.
ReRe is a 3-time champ ('03, '05, '07) in Melbourne, owns a 37-6 record, and seems to thrive in the sultry Aussie summer heat whether her game is on and even more when it’s off. She fell in last year’s quarterfinals to Jelena Jankovic but with this being another odd numbered year and ReRe packing a new US Open title under her Nike belt (and a surprising albeit short return to No.1 afterwards) her confidence will be high – and that spells trouble for the entire field including…
V capped off the 2008 season in style with her first year-end WTA Championship and began 2009 by leading Team Americas to the title at the revamped JB Group Classic in Hong Kong. Surprisingly, the 28-year old’s lone trip to the Aussie Open final was in 2003 when she lost to her sister in a 3-set tussle. She’s traditionally a slow starter and doesn’t really get going until she steps onto her beloved grass at Wimbledon where she won her fifth title last summer. But her two US Open titles (’00, ’01) show she can win big on the hard stuff .
The WTA Penthouse's current resident, Jelena Jankovic, holds the distinct “honor” of being the first and only baller to end the year at No.1 without ever winning a Grand Slam. But the slidin’ Serb made her first major final losing to Serena at the US Open last year and will surely be hungry for more. The 22-year old spent time this off-season in Mexico and South Florida working on her fitness and endurance so the heat shouldn’t be an issue. What could be issues are her recent bout with the flu and a still yet-to-happen racquet switch that could distract JJ from the most important priority: winning her first major.
Sister Serb Ana Ivanovic, last year’s Aussie Open runner-up to Shrieka, already owns her first major defeating Dinara Safina for the Roland Garros crown and grabbing the top ranking to boot last spring. Unfortunately, it was all downhill from there: she fell early at Wimbledon and then suffered a thumb injury that derailed the rest of her season (and seemingly her confidence along the way.) The 21-year old owns a blowtorch forehand (arguably the best in the game) and if she can consistently find it over the fortnight, a first Aussie Open crown will be within her grasp.
A breakthrough 2008 season, including runner-up finishes to Ana at Roland Garros and Elena Dementieva at the Beijing Olympics, propelled Marat’s lil' sis to a career high No.2 ranking last year. Her best result in Melbourne is the third round (I know!), and like JJ, has yet to prove she can take that next step. Dinara’s improved fitness and newfound confidence, not to mention a run to the final in Sydney this week, can only help her in that department so expect a much deeper run here.
Which lady ballers are dark horse candidates in Melbourne?
Elena Dementieva – This statuesque Russian has become the hottest lady baller on tour earning back-to-back titles in Auckland and Sydney. Last summer, she earned the biggest prize in her career when she won the gold medal in Beijing defeating Serena then Dinara in the final. And let’s not forget she also reached the finals of Roland Garros and the US Open in 2004 both without the improved serve she’s shown off recently. Let's hope she's not running on empty if she makes the second week.
Caroline Wozniacki – Wozzy has future champion written all over her. This feisty 18-year old already has 3 career titles to her name and held 3 match points against Serena Williams before falling in a 3-set Sydney thriller this week. One to watch in any case.
Victoria Azarenka – This former junior No.1 has been touted as a future champion ever since hitting the professional ranks. The Belarusian’s powerful baseline game is rounding into form right on time as evidenced by her championship run in Queensland last week, Vika's first career title.