At the Net: How will the ladies fare in Oz?

Philadelphia, PA ( – The Grand Slam season will get underway
Monday at the Australian Open in Melbourne, where a new champion will be
crowned this year.

Li Na was the runner-up in 2011 and ’13 before she nailed down her first
Australian Open title last season by beating pesky Slovak Dominika Cibulkova in
the final. But the Chinese star retired toward the end of last season, opening
the way for a new Aussie champ in 2015.

Who are the favorites to fill the void, you say? Well, let’s take a look.

You don’t have to look much further than five-time Aussie titlist Serena
Williams, who’s never lost in a final in Oz while holding the Open Era record
for titles there.

The 18-time Grand Slam winner will be the favorite at the latest Aussie
fortnight … and for good reason.

Surprisingly, however, the world No. 1 superstar and reigning U.S. Open champ
is seeking her first Aussie title in five years. From 2003 to 2010, the mighty
Serena nailed down the five Aussie championships, beating five former No. 1
stars in all of those finals (Venus Williams, Lindsay Davenport, Maria
Sharapova, Dinara Safina and Justine Henin, respectively).

But she hasn’t gotten past the quarters in Melbourne since the ’10
championship, including a fourth-round loss a year ago.

Sharapova will take a crack at Serena, even though she hasn’t beaten her
American rival since 2004, or 15 straight meetings. Fifteen straight!

The reigning French Open queen captured her lone Aussie title in 2008 and is a
two-time runner-up at Melbourne Park, where, like Serena, she exited early in
the round of 16 last year.

The five-time major titlist from Russia opened her 2015 season last week with
a title in Brisbane, where she beat fellow former No. 1 Ana Ivanovic in a sexy

Simona Halep will be the No. 3 seed in Melbourne, where she reached the
quarterfinals a year ago. The quiet Romanian star was last year’s French Open
runner-up to Sharapova and opened her ’15 season with a title in China last

Halep’s a Grand Slam title waiting to happen after reaching at least the
quarters at three of the four majors in 2014, including a semifinal appearance
at Wimbledon.

The best left-handed woman on the planet is Petra Kvitova. The world No. 4
star is a two-time Wimbledon champ and currently holds that coveted title.

The Czech slugger reached the Aussie semis in 2012, but she has struggled Down
Under since, failing to get past the second round, including an opening-round
exit there a year ago. As a matter of fact, PK failed to get past the third
round at three of the four Slams in ’14 (but did manage to sneak out a
second Wimby title in four years).

The aforementioned Ivanovic is coming off one of her best seasons in several
years and opened her latest campaign by reaching the final in Brisbane last

The former world No. 1 from Serbia is no stranger to success in Melbourne,
where she reached the final in 2008 and the quarterfinals a year ago. Having
said that, in between the ’08 runner-up finish and the trek into the round of
eight last year, AI could do no better than the fourth round in the ‘Bourne
from 2009-13, or a five-year stretch.


But I thinks it’s safe to say she’s recovered since then.

Still the capable Ivanovic, the French Open champion in 2008 and runner-up in
2007, failed to get past the third round at the final three Slams of 2014,
including a second-round flameout at the U.S. Open.

The rest of the Top 10 is rounded out by former Wimbledon runner-up Agnieszka
Radwanska; last year’s Wimbledon runner-up Genie Bouchard; former world No. 1
and two-time U.S. Open finalist Caroline Wozniacki; left-handed German
Angelique Kerber; and rising Russian Ekaterina Makarova, who is yet another
tough lefty.

Radwanska just doesn’t have enough power to run the table at a major.

Bouchard, like Halep, will probably be a Grand Slam champion sooner rather
than later. The young Canadian was the only woman to reach at least the
semifinals at three of the four majors last year in only her first full Grand
Slam season.

The former world No. 1 Wozniacki, like the aforementioned Ivanovic, also has
enjoyed a resurgence on tour. The popular Dane reached her second U.S. Open
final in six years last year and opened her 2015 season by reaching a final in
Auckland just last week.

Wozniacki’s best Aussie showing was a trip into the semis in 2011.

Kerber has no shot in Melbourne, while Makarova could make some noise Down
Under. Makarova has quietly reached at least the quarters at six of the last
12 majors, including a trip into a U.S. Open semi in September. She was a
back-to-back Aussie quarterfinalist in 2012 and 2013 and can make any player
uncomfortable on the other side of the net.

Venus Williams may not be a threat to win it all at the Aussie anymore, but
she did open her 2015 season with a title in Auckland last week, beating
Wozniacki in an attractive all-former-world-No. 1 finale.

Venus is a seven-time major champ, but hasn’t nailed down a big one since the
2008 Wimbledon Championships. She was the 2003 Aussie runner-up to her little
sister, but hasn’t been much of a factor since in Melbourne, reaching only a
pair of quarterfinals over the last 11 years.

I’d say that ship has sailed.

Keep your eye on one of my favorite young players on the tour … Karolina
Pliskova. This big-serving Czech was second on tour to only Serena in aces last
year and is a dangerous southpaw for sure. She also had her best-ever showing
at the last major event, a third-round berth in New York in September.

And how about an unseeded Victoria Azarenka?

The former world No. 1 star missed months of action last year while battling
left foot and right knee injuries. But when healthy, Vika has been nothing
short of a force at the Slams, especially in Oz, where she captured back-to-
back titles in 2012 and 2013 and has appeared in at least the quarters there
four of the last five years.

Azarenka is also a two-time U.S. Open runner-up who has been making deep runs
at the majors since 2009.

In addition to Serena (and in some way, Venus), another American to keep an
eye on could be 30th-ranked Madison Keys. The 19-year-old Illinois native
could be one of the breakthrough players we’re looking for this year, and
wouldn’t that be nice.

Well, who’s gonna win it all this year? It would be real easy to pick Serena
here, but I’m leaning in the Simona Halep direction, if things can break right
for the steady Romanian.