Commentary

Williamses top list of Aussie contenders

A fit and resolute Serena Williams might be the favorite among a genuinely competitive field to win the Australian Open. Plus, she thrives in odd-numbered years.

Updated: January 14, 2009, 10:55 AM ET
By Kamakshi Tandon | Special to ESPN.com

Venus WilliamsMike Clarke/AFP/Getty ImagesVenus Williams has been ablaze since winning the Sony Ericsson Championships.

It's no secret that there's little order and predictability at the top of women's tennis these days. Five different players have won the past five Grand Slams, and five different players (not even the exact same five) have been No. 1 in the past year.

At such times, the usual methods of tournament forecasting -- recent form, past success -- tend to give way to more unorthodox approaches. Any sign or pattern which might serve as a portent of the future will do. Serena Williams, for example, comes into the Australian Open having won the tournament in 2003, 2005, 2007. Does that mean it's her turn to win again this year?

"I'm not really superstitious, but it would be great to win it again in 2009," said Williams, not overly impressed with the unscientific reasoning. "To be honest, I really wanted to win in 2008, but it didn't quite work out."

Having just saved four match points in a patchy victory over local favorite Samantha Stosur in the first round of the Medibank International in Sydney, Williams was far more concerned about court performance than calendar patterns. Her opening match took place in less-than-ideal conditions: strong winds, a partisan crowd and an opponent with a rare attacking game. Serving for the match in the second set, she became distracted after a controversial decision from the umpire and needed three tough sets to eventually prevail.

"I just made too many errors, and that was frustrating because I feel like I've been working hard," said Williams, who did look fit and muscled as she made her season debut. "I've had some extra time to get even more fit, which I really wanted to do, so that was good."

Playing her second match against Italian Sara Errani in more pleasant conditions, she came out a comfortable 6-1, 6-2 winner.

But even a bad result this week would not have much impact on Williams' prospects. She has repeatedly proved her ability to win major events with little or no preparation, winning the 2007 Australian Open after playing only three matches in four months. Whatever happens in Sydney over the next few days, she'll head to Melbourne feeling confident. "I'm ready for the Australian Open," she said. "I feel like I've had enough tennis under my belt. I've had years of matches. If I'm not ready now, then maybe I should consider another occupation."

With Justine Henin retired, Maria Sharapova still on an injury layoff and Amelie Mauresmo now ranked outside the top 20, Williams is the only former Australian Open champion in serious contention for this year's title. But an almost unprecedented number of players are genuine threats to win it for the first time.

[+] EnlargeDinara Safina
Paul Kane/Getty ImagesDinara Safina hastily moved up the rankings last year and now hopes to capture her first Grand Slam title, in Melbourne.
Many, including Williams herself, would put her older sister Venus at the top of that list. An Australian Open finalist in 2003 (losing to Serena), Venus won Wimbledon for the fifth time last year and also captured the year-ending Sony Ericsson championships. She seems optimistic that her good form will continue.

"I had a really good offseason," Venus said in Hong Kong last week, playing an exhibition event that will serve as her lone warm-up for Melbourne. "I did four weeks with no tennis, that was pretty amazing. … I'm feeling good."

But the Williamses remain unpredictable performers in an unpredictable era, equally capable of recording dominant victories or going out in a blaze of unforced errors. They exited in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open and the third round of the French Open last year but lost only to each other at the final two Grand Slams of the season, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.

"I think even they don't know what to expect from them[selves]," said Dinara Safina, laughing. "Serena once didn't really come in shape at the Australian and she played unbelievable. She wins because she's a great player. She knows when to concentrate and how to concentrate."

The sisters also have a significant edge in experience, with Serena having won nine Slams and Venus seven. Along with Jelena Jankovic and Elena Dementieva, Safina is one of three players in the world's top four who have never won a major. Still, she's telling herself she's ready.

"You believe in yourself and you make [yourself] believe," said Safina, who last year rose from No. 15 to No. 3 and reached the final of the French Open. "You have to go like this, to believe in yourself, otherwise it makes no sense to even go there."

Dementieva, meanwhile, is taking a relaxed approach after the validation of winning an Olympic gold medal in Beijing. "I don't feel any pressure any more," Dementieva said. "I already achieved the biggest goal in my career by winning the Olympic gold. … But there are still some goals in my career I would like to achieve, like the No. 1 position, like winning a Grand Slam. I still have my motivation."

One negative is that her mother and constant companion, Vera, is not currently by her side, missing both Sydney and the ASB Classic in Auckland. "It's tough to be without her, because I used to travel with her all the time, and it's important to have her around and have her support. Yeah, I miss her," said Dementieva, declining to explain the absence. "I cannot tell you. It's a personal thing."

I'm ready for the Australian Open. … I feel like I've had enough tennis under my belt. I've had years of matches. If I'm not ready now, then maybe I should consider another occupation.

-- Serena Williams

No one goes into Melbourne with more pressure than world No. 1 Jankovic, trying to shed her dubious distinction of being the only WTA No. 1 who has yet to win a major. After some intense and much-publicized training during the offseason, she suffered a setback in Hong Kong last week when she was forced to withdraw with the flu.

Ana Ivanovic is also under scrutiny, having struggled since winning her maiden Grand Slam at the French Open last year. An early exit in Brisbane last week indicates that she's still trying to turn things around, but the 2008 Australian Open finalist could still be a threat in Melbourne if things suddenly click into place.

No one goes into Melbourne with more pressure than world No. 1 Jankovic, trying to shed her dubious distinction of being the only WTA No. 1 who has yet to win a major. After some intense and much-publicized training during the offseason, she suffered a setback in Hong Kong last week when she was forced to withdraw with the flu.

Ana Ivanovic is also under scrutiny, having struggled since winning her maiden Grand Slam at the French Open last year. An early exit in Brisbane last week indicates that she's still trying to turn things around, but the 2008 Australian Open finalist could still be a threat in Melbourne if things suddenly click into place.

Another player trying to shake the tag of one-Slam wonder is Svetlana Kuznetsova, who won her lone major way back at the 2004 U.S. Open. She's feeling reinvigorated after recently moving to Moscow and hiring new coach Olga Morozova, but her participation in Melbourne is in doubt because of an abdominal injury.

Can anyone else make a big breakthrough? Kuznetsova doesn't expect it. "Top 8 are going to stay top 8, I think," she said.

Dementieva is less certain. "A lot of talented young players are coming up like [Caroline] Wozniacki, who is No. 12 right now. A lot of good players, so it's tough to say," she said. "Like last year, Dinara -- she made such big progress, she really improved a lot. And in the beginning of the year you couldn't really say so."

Not even the players, it seems, are finding it easy to make predictions these days.

Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.