Williams set to make more tennis history

DARREN WALTON AND STEVE LARKIN
Last updated 12:57 09/01/2013
Serena Williams
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DOMINANT YEAR: With victory at the WTA Championships over Maria Sharapova, Serena Williams ended the 2012 season with a 59-4 record.

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A decade after completing her ''Serena Slam'' at Melbourne Park, the most dominant force in women's sport is in line for more tennis history at the Australian Open.

After sweeping to Wimbledon and US Open glory in 2012 - not to mention striking double gold at the London Olympics - Serena Williams can break all sorts of records and secure a shot at an unprecedented second non-calendar year grand slam set with a sixth Open triumph on Monday.

If Williams' first-round defeat at last year's French Open helped spark her remarkable run of 35 wins from her past 36  matches, imagine the motivation the fiercely competitive American would carry to Roland Garros this year if striving to join Steffi  Graf as the only woman to hold all four major trophies  simultaneously on two occasions.

In addition to her fabled ''Golden Slam'' - grand slam plus  Olympic gold - in 1988, Graf also completed a non-calendar year  grand slam sweep in Melbourne in 1994.

John McEnroe has already praised Williams as the greatest  women's player in history and debate would only intensify if she  became, at 31 years and four months, the oldest Australian Open champion and oldest world No.1.

With three singles majors more than 15-times grand slam winner  Williams, Martina Navratilova this week unsurprisingly stopped short of agreeing with McEnroe's lofty rating.

But Navratilova has no doubts Williams is high on the list with  the likes of Chris Evert, who also has 18 slams, Graf (22) and Australia's all-time leader Margaret Smith Court (24).

''She is not done yet - definitely in top five, top three, I  don't know,'' Navratilova said.

''I never rate the greatest because the different generations, different parameters, so you can't really judge that.

''It is just nice to be in that group and she is definitely in  that group.

''She is playing amazing tennis now. She seems to be very happy. 

She's happy off the court and happy on the court and I think she  realised that her time was running out and re-dedicated herself.

''That first-round loss at the French Open last year was the best  thing that happened to her and now she's seeing how much fun she's  having winning everything.''

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With her own Open hopes looking forlorn after another horror build-up, Samantha Stosur - who has enjoyed more success than most  against Williams - declared the American a raging favourite.

''I think you would be a pretty brave person to go against her straight off the bat,'' said Stosur, describing Williams' French  Open flop as a merely a ''bit of a mishap''.

''She's the in-form player and has carried that for a really long  period of time now.''

In a statistical anomaly, world No.1 and defending champion  Victoria Azarenka and 2012 Open runner-up Maria Sharapova remain  ranked above Williams.

Apart from owning dreadful head-to-head records against  Williams, Azarenka (toe) and Sharapova (shoulder) both arrived in  Melbourne after pulling out of the season-opening Brisbane  International and skipping the Sydney lead-up event.

Polish fourth seed Agnieszka Radwanska, German fifth seed  Angelique Kerber and Chinese sixth seed Li Na loom as possible  challengers after making impressive starts to 2013.But the Williams juggernaut will take a power of stopping.

''I am playing some of my best tennis,'' Williams said.

''I feel like I want to do better and play better still.''

 

PENPIX FOR LEADING WOMEN'S AUSTRALIAN OPEN CONTENDERS

VICTORIA AZARENKA (BLR)

Age: 23

Ranking: 1

Plays: right-handed (two-handed backhand)

Career prize money: $US16,857,277 ($A16.13 million)

Career titles: 14

Grand slam titles: 1 (Australian Open 2012)

Australian Open win-loss record: 21-6

Best Australian Open performance: champion 2012

The defending champion forfeited her clash with Serena Williams in Brisbane but with a 1-11 win-loss record against the powerhouse American, a minor toe injury seems the least of her concerns.

 

MARIA SHARAPOVA (RUS)

Age: 25

Ranking: 2

Plays: right-handed (two-handed backhand)

Career prize money: $US23,151,623 ($A22.15 million)

Career titles: 27

Grand slam titles: 4 (Australian Open 2008; French Open 2012; Wimbledon 2004; US Open 2006)

Australian Open win-loss record: 34-8

Best Australian Open performance: champion 2008

The Russian withdrew from the season-opening Brisbane International with shoulder soreness but she also reached last year's decider in Melbourne after pulling out as an injury precaution in Queensland.

 

SERENA WILLIAMS (USA)

Age: 31

Ranking: 3

Plays: right-handed (two-handed backhand)

Career prize money: $US41,960,896 ($A40.15 million)

Career titles: 47

Grand slam titles: 15 (Australian Open 2003, 2005, 2007, 2009, 2010; French Open 2002; Wimbledon 2002-03, 2009-10, 2012; US Open 1999, 2002, 2008, 2012)

Australian Open win-loss record: 54-7

Best Australian Open performances: champion 2003, 2005, 2007, 2009, 2010

Forget the rankings, the American is the undisputed No.1 player in women's tennis after collecting her 14th and 15th slams plus Olympic gold and the WTA Championship in 2012 before opening this season with more title success in Brisbane.

 

AGNIESZKA RADWANSKA (POL)

Age: 23

Ranking: 4

Plays: right-handed (two-handed backhand)

Career prize money: $US11,091,677 ($A10.61 million)

Career titles: 11

Grand slam titles: 0

Australian Open win-loss record: 15-6

Best Australian Open performances: quarter-finalist 2008, 2011, 2012

Became Poland's first grand slam finalist in the 44-year open era at Wimbledon last year and opened 2013 in style with title honours in Auckland. Under-rated and a genuine grand slam contender.

 

LI NA (CHI)

Age: 30

Ranking: 6

Plays: right-handed (two-handed backhand)

Career prize money: $US9,316,704 ($A8.92 million)

Career titles: 6

Grand slam titles: 1 (French Open 2011)

Australian Open win-loss record: 21-7

Best Australian Open performance: finalist 2011

The former Open runner-up has started 2013 in sparkling form with a title in her home country and more confidence-boosting wins in Sydney. Now coached by the former mentor of seven-times major champion Justine Henin.

 

BEST AUSTRALIAN HOPE

SAMANTHA STOSUR (AUS)

Age: 28

Ranking: 9

Plays: right-handed (two-handed backhand)

Career prize money: $US11,825,286 ($A11.3 million)

Career titles: 3

Grand slam titles: 1 (US Open 2011)

Australian Open win-loss record: 14-10

Best Australian Open performances: fourth round 2006, 2010

With five straight losses in Australia, a demoralising run dating back to last summer, the local hope needs to find her game and nerve fast if she's to make an unlikely run. Has never made the quarter-finals.

- AAP

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