Except for Radwanska (in Auckland) and Li (in a new Shenzhen event), all of the WTA top ten have descended upon the city of Brisbane, perched on Australia’s eastern coast.  In addition to its sun-soaked sand and pristine waters, next week’s tournament offers a compelling reason to travel there.  Here are some of the storylines that might unfold.

Top half

Not often has Azarenka excelled when defending a title, and her performance in a Thailand exhibition a few days ago reportedly lacked her usual consistency.  With the pressure on her to repeat her spectacular feats of 2012, one wonders whether the matured Vika that we saw last year will handle the burden as well as she did the status of world #1.  An upset might lurk in the form of potential second-round opponent Lisicki, although the German with the thunderous serve struggled to find traction last year outside her grass comfort zone.  Just as likely to pose Azarenka’s first obstacle is the talented but unreliable lefty Safarova, who played the heroine’s role in the Fed Cup final last winter and might translate that momentum into this season.  In the quarterfinal, the world #1 might face the woman whom she deposed from that position a year ago.  A friend as well as a rival, Wozniacki enjoyed success against Azarenka in their pre-2012 meetings but remarkably never has faced her during the latter’s tenure at the top.  The Dane appeared to halt her downward spiral with small titles at Seoul and Moscow after the US Open, and she should find a groove on the medium-speed hard court here.

Lurking to ambush one of the blondes who emerges from the top quarter is the undisputed player of 2012 on the women’s side, and arguably the most distinguished player on either Tour.  Serena often plays to the level of the competition and the tournament, however, and an uncharacteristic loss on the eve of a major would not surprise.  Nevertheless, none of her early opponents look likely to mount a credible challenge, including the woman who defeated her at the 2011 US Open.  Recovering from a bone spur in her foot over the offseason, Stosur rarely displays her best tennis on home soil as the expectations of her compatriots unnerve her.  Those looking for a player flying under the radar in this section might check out Sloane Stephens, the brightest star in the future of American tennis, who received a less than intimidating draw by this tournament’s standards.

Bottom half:

A withdrawal from Brisbane last year, Sharapova never has played at a non-major in Australia.  She normally prepares for Melbourne with a series of exhibitions and lost early at Auckland two years ago on the only occasion when she entered a WTA tournament.  Like most heavy hitters, the second seed will need a few matches to find her range after the offseason.  Those may not come easily here with an opening round against Jarmila Gajdosova, who took her to a third set at a US Open and will ride a wave of positive momentum after delivering her first singles victory since last May.  Once past that hurdle, Sharapova would face a more modest test in Sara Errani, whom she dismissed by the same routine scores in one unforgettable and one forgettable match last year. 

After her spectacular breakthrough in 2011 and her predictable regression in 2012, Kvitova aims to show the tennis world in 2013 that the reality lies nearer the former than the latter.  This most famous of the Czech lefties began her campaign reasonably well by avenging a loss from October to Suarez Navarro, also a thorn in her side at last year’s Australian Open.  In the quarterfinals might await a duel between the top two lefties in the WTA, pitting Kvitova against the fifth-ranked Kerber.  The German’s consistency poses the type of challenge for the Czech that she must overcome to rise back to the level where her offensive talent belongs.

Semifinals:  Wozniacki vs. Serena, Kerber vs. Sharapova

Final:  Wozniacki vs. Kerber

Champion:  Wozniacki

We’ll check back shortly with suggested New Year’s resolutions for each of the top players and more discussions of the pre-Melbourne Australian tournaments.