Starting our series of 2013 Australian Open previews, we discuss the ladies before the gentlemen in a breakdown of who can mount the most credible title threats.

The favorite:

Serena:  While she claims to prefer the US Open, the Australian Open ranks with Wimbledon as the most successful major in her career overall.  The indisputable player of the year in 2012, Serena has not lost at a tournament approaching this magnitude since Roland Garros, sweeping Wimbledon, the Olympics, the US Open, and the year-end championships.  Her competitive appetite did not appear blunted from that magnificent span when she cruised through an overmatched field in Brisbane, and she has not lost to a top-five opponent since June 2011.   Serena’s eighteen straight victories against them include the latest episodes in nine-match winning streaks against both of the women ranked above her.  On the other hand, Serena proved vulnerable in early rounds of majors last year to unheralded opponents, and she delivered one of her least convincing performances (Roland Garros) when expectations ran high.  Both extended to three sets, her two major finals last year revealed uncharacteristic nerves under pressure before she overcame them.

The challengers:

Vika:  Previously not at her best when defending significant titles, the world #1 faces the greatest such test of her poise and maturity to date.  The medium-speed hard courts of the Australian Open suit her hybrid style of offense and defense better than those at any other major.  Azarenka generally starts the season in full flight before injuries clip her wings, and this stretch marked the start of her 26-match winning streak a year ago.  Other than Serena, she has throttled most of her leading rivals on this type of surface, including authoritative victories over both Sharapova and Radwanska at the 2012 Australian Open.  The Serena problem does continue to vex, but she cannot meet her until at least the semifinals and will hope for a fortuitous upset before then.  Before a minor injury forced her to withdraw from Brisbane on the eve of the semifinals, she had recorded a sequence of comfortable victories that showcased the same returning process so devastating to last year’s Melbourne field.

Maria:  If Azarenka has a Serena problem, Sharapova has a combined Serena-and-Vika problem away from the fast surfaces where she delivered her two victories (and nearly a third) over Azarenka last year.  Rarely even competitive against Azarenka on slow-to-medium surfaces or against Serena anywhere, she nevertheless has enjoyed her most consistent results of any major at the Australian Open.  In her last six appearance, Sharapova has reached four semifinals and three finals at the season’s opening major.  While it resists her efforts to end points quickly, the surface’s high bounce gives her time to set up her laser groundstrokes and favors a player of her height.  A minor neck issue forced her to withdraw from Brisbane for the second straight year but should not derail her preparation any more than last year’s withdrawal prevented her from reaching the final in Melbourne.  Usually more muted in odd-numbered years, can she build on her momentum from the best season of her career?

With a bit of luck:

Aga:  Enjoying a breakthrough last season, she reached her first major final at Wimbledon in a year when she lost to hardly anyone other than Azarenka and Li on outdoor hard courts.  Radwanska started 2013 in style by winning a small title in Auckland, although one wonders about the wisdom of playing four consecutive weeks in Auckland, Sydney, and Melbourne.  A player who excels in finals (11-4 career record), she has grown increasingly effective at protecting her modest serve against all but the aforementioned duo.  Melbourne has not brought out the best in Radwanska until last year, when she still nearly lost in the first round.  The high bounce puts pressure on her fragile shoulder, and, to echo Mats Wilander, it is difficult to christen someone a true contender for a major title until she actually wins a major.  Building her success at Wimbledon upon an especially accommodating draw, Radwanska likely needs that sort of fortuitous assistance again to avoid too many duels with heavy hitters.

Nails:  Opening the season with a title in Shenzhen, Li looked shaky early in her Sydney week and, like Radwanska, may run low on energy by the second week in Melbourne.  A finalist there in 2011, she shares Azarenka’s brilliant transition game that merges offense with defense so effectively on a court of this speed.  Rarely intimidated by anyone, the Chinese superstar won her lone major title at Roland Garros by defeating four straight top-10 opponents.  She can ambush anyone on any given day, but the unfortunate corollary for Li is that she also can lose to anyone on any given day.  The latter of those trends defined her efforts at the last three majors, while her last appearance in Australia revealed the other oddity of this Jekyll-and-Hyde player.  Wasting four match points on that occasion, Li reminded audiences that no lead is too large for her to squander, just as no deficit is too large for her to overcome.

With a lot of luck:

Petra:  A dismal finish to 2012 trickled into an equally miserable start to 2013, combining for seven losses in her last ten matches.  But Kvitova brought her best tennis to some of the season’s most important tournaments even during her slump, recording second-week appearances at every major and semifinals at two of them.  As she has learned too well, her high-risk style leaves her virtually no margin for error and may not hold up for seven matches across the course of a fortnight.  Struggling even on her serve, she looked entirely  devoid of confidence while winning two games from Cibulkova in Sydney, but by now Kvitova has trained us to constantly expect the unexpected.  If she gets the chance to settle into a groove, she could grow more dangerous with each victory.

Angelique:  One of the least charismatic figures in the top 10, Kerber has become known for her counterpunching game, sprawling schedule, and habit of gorging on inferior opposition while recording few signature victories over the elite.  One must take Kerber seriously now that she has followed her 2011 US Open breakthrough with a season that entrenched her firmly inside the top 10 as the WTA’s leading lefty.  But she still has not reached a major final and looked jaded in Brisbane despite the long offseason.  The cumulative fatigue of 2011-12 may catch up to Kerber in 2013, for she rarely wins matches without much effort and too often sinks into despondent body language. 

Need a miracle:

Caro:  Before laughing at the notion, recall that the Dane achieved her best major performances of the past two years at the Australian Open, where she fell one point short of the 2011 final and reached the quarterfinals early in her wretched 2012 campaign.  After she had started last season at #1, Wozniacki ultimately plummeted outside the top 10 as even her consistency deserted her. Her forehand and her confidence lie equally in tatters, but, as with Kvitova, the latter of those former strengths could return if the draw allows her to settle into the tournament.  Wozniacki has earned more successes than anyone ranked near her against all of the top three women, although she has not faced Azarenka during the latter’s current ascendancy.

Sam:  Famously feckless on home soil, she crashed out of Melbourne in the first round last year against Sorana Cirstea and has lost six of her last seven matches in Australia, including both this year.  Stosur never experienced the sense of liberation that many self-demanding players feel when they win their first major, looking just as tense now in important matches as she did before that US Open title.  Ironically, in fact, that title may have heightened the pressure on her by elevating the expectations of her compatriots.  A player who shines most in minor tournaments and smaller courts, she has cultivated a moth-to-flame relationship with the spotlight.  But her kick serve and topspin forehand seem suited to the bounce of the surface, and its speed should allow her to run around her unreliable backhand.

Sara:  A quarterfinalist in Melbourne last year, Errani never seemed to grow weary as she excelled in singles and doubles throughout the season.  Her consistency will win her plenty of matches against misfiring offensive players, but the contenders usually dial in their weapons with greater accuracy when it matters most.  Shielding one of the weakest serves in the top 20, she suffered a series of routs even during her breakthrough last year against players like Sharapova, Kvitova, and the Williams sisters.  Although a fourth-round appearance or another quarterfinal would not surprise, one struggles to imagine a draw that implodes sufficiently for Errani to edge through the marquee matches unscathed.

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Up next:  a similar preview of the top 10 men on the eve of the 2013 Australian Open, following the same format.