Can Caroline Wozniacki back up her No. 1 ranking and win her first Grand Slam?
The top-ranked Wozniacki did a fine job of attempting to push her game to the next level at the year-end WTA Championships, playing U.S. Open champion Kim Clijsters extremely tight in a three-set loss by forcing the action more. But the 20-year-old has had a poor start to the season, losing exhibition matches to Clijsters and Vera Zvonareva (a stunning 6-1, 6-0 loss), and Tuesday in Sydney she dropped a 6-3, 6-3 match to Dominica Cibulkova, who she had beaten five times.
Wozniacki enters the Australian Open in the same position that 2008 year-end No. 1 Jelena Jankovic did: Slam-less and with a portion of the tennis world thinking that she is a less-than-deserving No. 1.
The only way to prove that she isn't is to raise her first major crown, and she will be hard-pressed to do that the way she’s playing. Instead of flattening her forehand, taking more chances coming to the net and trying to dictate with her backhand, she's gone back into her old reliable but not always impressive defensive posture. Moreover, Wozniacki is playing with a new racket, which is a tough adjustment for any player at a major (just ask Novak Djokovic, who played with a new stick as the defending Aussie Open champion in 2009 and fell apart).
The Dane does have the capability of beating everyone in the field, but at this point it doesn't look like she has the confidence to do so, or the willingness to change things up against game's elite. She'll more than likely leave Melbourne with the same doubts that she had going in.
Can Kim Clijsters win a major outside of the U.S. Open?
Given that she's had a fairly stellar career, it's pretty amazing that No. 3 Clijsters has yet to win a major outside of her three U.S. Open triumphs. She reached the Aussie Open final once back in 2004 and fell to archrival Justine Henin in a match that could have been hers.
But that was then, when the Australian Open was played on the more tricky rubber surface Rebound Ace, and now that it’s on a hard-court surface similar to that of the U.S. Open (although a bit slower), there no reason why the 27-year-old Belgian can't win her first Aussie crown.
Since her comeback, she has beaten her toughest competition, Henin, three times in a row, has never lost to Wozniacki, and just beat another legend, Venus Williams, in the U.S. Open semifinals. With defending champ Serena Williams out with an injury, Clijsters does not have to worry about that all-time great's lethal serving, returning and groundstroking, and just like she did in New York, Clijsters should be able to turn defensive points to offensive ones in the blink of an eye.
This is clearly Clijsters’ tournament to win, so if she doesn't go on a mental walkabout like she did last year in her quick loss to Nadia Petrova, she should be able to face down all the players who have troubled her in the past, including No.1 Vera Zvonareva, 2008 champion Maria Sharapova and any bold youngster who believes she can hit her off of the court.
Can the Russians re-establish themselves as dominant force?
There's still a current of thought that Russia is the dominant nation in women’s tennis, but outside of a large volume of players inside the top 100, that clearly has not been the case over the past few years. Svetlana Kuznetsova was the last one to win a major, at the 2009 French Open, stalwart Elena Dementieva has retired, former No. 1 Dinara Safina clearly is struggling, and veterans like Nadia Petrova appear past their prime.
Last year Serena Williams won two majors, Italian Francesca Schiavone won another and Belgian Kim Clijsters took the final one.
However, three Russian women could factor into the Australian Open in a big way: No. 2 Vera Zvonareva, who reached the 2010 finals of Wimbledon and the U.S. Open; 2008 champion Maria Sharapova; and two-time Slam champ Svetlana Kuznetsova. Due to Caroline Wozniacki's recent struggles, Zvonareva has become the sexy pick for some, but as well as she played last summer reaching two major finals, Zvonareva admittedly was atrocious once she got there, so it’s possible that if she reaches the Aussie Open, she could repeat Safina's pattern: waltzing to the big dance three times and ending up a wall flower.
Sharapova is ambitious as always and obviously has weapons, but she has struggled in big matches since her return from October 2009 surgery and must show the rest of the field that she still can hit right through them. When she's in a good head space, Kuznetsova is capable of taking down anyone, but she has taken so many inexplicable losses over the past year that it's hard to tell which Sveta will show up on any given day.
It’s not out of the realm of possibility that 19-year-old Russian teenager Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova will go further than any other Russian in Australia — and it will be only to the quarterfinals.
Can Australian Samantha Stosur contend with pressure of playing at home?
An Australian woman hasn't won a major since Evonne Goolagong at Wimbledon in 1980, and ranked No. 6, Sam Stosur has a chance to end the streak. But as good as she's been at times outside of her nation, such as reaching the 2010 French Open final, she may not have the personality to raise her country's largest trophy in front of the home crowd.
Game-wise, she almost has all the tools to win a hard-court major and could do it with a decent draw — her backhand and movement are still suspect and she doesn't come to the net enough — but she's essentially a shy person who doesn't appear to have the makeup of a player who is willing to carry her nation's expectations on her shoulders like her countryman Lleyton Hewitt was willing to do at the start of the 21st century.
Stosur has played two warm-up tournaments and took early losses to Jarmila Groth and Svetlana Kuznetsova. She's still claiming that she can be a title contender, but given that the 26-year-old’s two best performances were fourth-round appearances and that's there's no real other legit Aussie contenders on either the men's or women's side, it's hard to see her holding up under what is sure to be an incredible amount of attention.
Will Victoria Azarenka finally realize her potential and break through to a Slam semi or final?
For a number of reasons, Azarenka's close friend, Caroline Wozniacki, has been able to make it to two final fours of the majors, while the more imposing Belarusian has been able to reach only three quarterfinals. Little separates them quality-wise, but Wozniacki has been a more composed and committed player and mostly has taken the opportunities presented to her.
For her part, the powerful and hyper-aggressive Azarenka looked like she would be a main contender for the 2010 U.S. Open crown after she took down Maria Sharapova to win Stanford, but then a bizarre training room injury took her out of the tournament. However, she'll enter the Aussie Open ranked No. 8 and this time around she won't have to go up against Serena Williams, who beat her at the past two Australian Opens, coming back from a 6-4, 4-0 deficits in last year’s quarterfinal to stun Azarenka 4-6, 7-6(4), 6-2.
At age 21, with a more consistent forehand and better serve to add to an already excellent backhand and return, if she stays composed, Azarenka should be able to make a greater impact this year, with a run to the title not entirely out of the question.