Riding a 22-match winning streak, the American juggernaut arrives
in Melbourne Park fit, fresh and ravenous for more grand slam
success at a tournament where injuries and illness have robbed her
of yet more silverware in the past three years.
Age has not wearied the 32-year-old, who after winning her second
French Open crown last year became the oldest woman to win the U.S.
Open when she raised her 17th grand slam trophy at Flushing Meadows.
The winner at Melbourne Park in 2003, 2005, 2007, 2009 and 2010,
another triumph would see Williams equal Martina Navratilova and
Chris Evert's tally of 18 major titles and draw her closer to German
great Steffi Graf's 22. Australian Margaret Court leads the all-time
list with 24.
Williams's place in the tennis pantheon is assured but her coach
Patrick Mouratoglou believes the American could secure a calendar
grand slam, which would make her the third woman after Court in 1970
and Graf in 1988 to achieve the feat in the open era.
"Look at the level she plays at the moment," Mouratoglou told the
BBC this week. "She's beaten all the top players many times, so you
can aim that high."
In contrast to the men's tour, which has been blessed by the power
struggles between Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy
Murray in recent seasons, the women's tour is crying out for a
genuine challenger to Williams.
Second seed Victoria Azarenka, who will bid for a hat-trick of
titles at Melbourne Park, and third seed Maria Sharapova are again
the most credible threats.
Azarenka underlined her toughness last year with an impressive title
defense, beating China's Li Na in front of a hostile crowd in Rod
The powerful Belarusian proved a worthy winner, after having
weathered a storm of criticism for taking a prolonged medical
time-out during a tense passage of play late in her semi-final
against American Sloane Stephens.
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Tellingly, Azarenka avoided Williams during both her runs to the
Australian title, with the American eliminated after being
hobbled by injuries.
Azarenka also dodged Williams at last year's Brisbane
International in the leadup to Melbourne Park but there was no
hiding at this year's warm-up, where she was beaten in straight
sets by the American in the final.
That match followed Williams's straight sets win over four-times
grand slam champion Sharapova, her 14th in succession against
the glamorous Russian.
Sharapova's shoulder problems ensured a disappointing 2013 in
which she missed the U.S. Open and split with long-time coach
After a surprising collaboration with American Jimmy Connors,
which lasted only one tournament, the 26-year-old brings a new
coach in Sven Groeneveld, a former mentor to Monica Seles and
Ana Invanovic, and the satisfaction that she enters the
tournament injury-free after Brisbane.
While a Williams win would seem virtually assured, the American,
who faces Australian wildcard Ashleigh Barty in the first round,
would be wary that the crackling energy of major tournaments
often tears up the script.
Asia's first grand slam singles champion, former French Open
winner Li would hardly count as unheralded but always looms as a threat on
the blue courts of Melbourne Park, where she believes the venue's "qi" — or
"air" — raises her game.
German Sabine Lisicki's fourth-round upset of Williams at
Wimbledon last year was also a timely reminder that the majors
can turn the most unfancied of players into warriors capable of
humbling the world's best with one inspired hour.
(Editing by John O'Brien)
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