Friday, January 15, 2010

2010 Australian Open Women's Preview: The Williamses, The Belgians, The Russians, and So Much More

A plethora of engaging story lines are keeping women's tennis fans in a state of utter bliss as the 2010 Australian Open nears its kick-off.

On paper, this year's event promises to be one of the most entertaining, chaotic, and competitive in recent history, as the recent un-retirements of a pair of Belgians, Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin, have added a fever-pitch to the excitement surrounding the field.

In addition to the long awaited Grand-Slam return of Justine Henin, the 2004 Champion and 2006 runner-up, there are two other former Australian Open Champions in the draw. Serena Williams is looking to snatch her 5th title (2003, '05, '07, '09) and Maria Sharapova (2008) is looking to prove that her comeback from shoulder surgery is complete.

In total, their are 7 former Grand-Slam title holders in the draw, in addition to a group of young players who are eager to make their presence felt.

Last year, we were one set from having an all-Russian semifinal (Safina, Dementieva, Zvonareva, and almost Kuznetsova), but this year's version promises to be more diverse. Surely, with all the hype surrounding the Belgians and the Williams sisters, a dark horse is bound to make some waves.

While the WTA always proves difficult to predict, one thing is a certainty - drama will reign supreme.

Here is a look at the draws:

Serena's quarter:

Serena has a thing for the odd years at Melbourne, as she has won the last four of them. But odd years won't be enough this time around for Serena. She will undoubtedly be on a mission to prove that while the Belgians may be back, she is still the real No. 1 in Women's Tennis.

Fortunately for Serena, she won't have to worry about Justine Henin in her half of the draw. Even so, she could face some challenges, with a possible 4th round match up with Sam Stosur or a young and powerful Sabine Lisicki (if seeds hold) and a possible quarterfinal bout with the ever-tenacious Victoria Azarenka.

Still, it's hard to imagine anybody but Serena emerging from this quarter of the draw, especially if she keeps her mind on her opponent and off the excitement surrounding the rest of the ladies.

Pick: Serena

Wozniacki's quarter:

What a difference a year makes. Last year at this time, Great Dane Caroline Wozniacki was not in the top-10 and had never been past the 4th round of a slam. Since then she has appeared in a Grand-Slam final, the year-end Championships in Doha, and is currently ranked No. 4 in the world.

Still it's funny that we are not calling this Venus' quarter of the draw. That being said, if the seeds hold, we should be seeing a very enticing quarterfinal match between Wozniacki and Venus. If this happens, we won't have to wonder whose quarter it is anymore - we'll let them decide it on the court.

Other floaters in this quarter include the crafty Agnieska Radwanska, the slumping yet worthy-of-consideration Melanie Oudin, the able and consistent veteran Na Li, and the in-form Shahar Peer.

There could be some excitement in this quarter before it's all over.

Pick: Na Li

Safina's quarter:

Dinara has returned from the back injury that forced her out of the year-end Championships in Doha in body, but it isn't yet clear if she has returned in spirit. After a stressful year of dealing with the expectations that may or may not have been unfairly placed upon her shoulders by the media, her coach, and herself, Safina is ready to take another crack at a Grand-Slam.

Unfortunately for her, Maria Sharapova is sitting very close to her in the draw, and if Safina can avoid an upset in the first 3 rounds, the bar will be set much higher if she faces Sharapova in the 4th round. While Maria has yet to prove that she can serve to her potential after surgery, she has proved that she will fight anybody tooth and nail regardless. Even if she isn't getting free points from her serve, she's got the game to do serious damage in this part of the draw (which also included Jelena Jankovic and Marion Bartoli).

A very enticing 3rd round match between Sharapova and Cibulkova (rematch of their French Open bloodbath) should occur, and if Maria can get over this hump, look for her to build on that momentum.

Pick: Sharapova

Kusnetsova's quarter:

This one is a doozy, and there's no other way to put it. If Svetlana can make her seed stand up in this quarter, she may just be headed for WTA player of the year accolades.

No. 5 seed Elena Dementieva (who just took out Serena in a one-sided Sydney final) is also in this quarter, along with Flavia Pennetta and Nadia Petrova. But that isn't the real kicker. It isn't even half of the real kicker. In a strange and unfortunate draw for Kuznetsova, she drew both Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin in her quarter.

This, my friends is the Grand-Slam quarter to end all Grand-Slam quarters.

If she can avoid the land mines in the early rounds (Rezai, Pavlyuchenkova) Kuznetsova will be headed for a 4th round match up with Kimpossible (she's 1-7 lifetime against the Belgian).

Meanwhile, in the other half of this uber-stacked quarter, a 2nd round tilt between Justine Henin and Dementieva looks to be a certainty. The winner will feel fortunate to survive, but other floaters like Sorana Cirstea, Alisa Kleybanova, Flavia Pennetta, and reinstated qualifier Yanina Wickmayer will be waiting for whomever does survive.

This will be enough to have fans of Women's Tennis biting at their cuticles into the wee hours of the night.

Pick (gulp): Henin

Semifinals: Serena over Li, Sharapova over Henin

Finals: Sharapova over Serena

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