To say that Serena Williams is a favorite to win a sixth Australian Open once the year’s first Grand Slam gets under way here at Melbourne Park on Monday is almost irrelevant.
Serena has carried off the trophy here when she has been favorite or a moderate outsider or considered an absolute no-hoper. She has come into this event fit and hungry, out of shape and distracted — or anything in between — and still won. There is so much evidence to back up the assertion that, much of the time, the younger Williams sister can win where and when she wants that one has to accept it as fact.
When somewhat unflattering pictures appeared in the local press a few years back of Serena lolling on a nearby beach in an undersized bikini just a few days before she astounded everyone by winning the title, it was obviously time to stop being surprised by anything this extraordinary competitor could achieve.
Nevertheless, that mysterious foot injury followed by the serious health problems which threatened to derail her career for good two years ago really did make it unlikely that she would ever dominate the sport again.
Unlikely but, as she has proved, not impossible. Although the poor, out of breath WTA computer has yet to catch up with her exploits – which is why she is only the No. 3 seed here – the fact is that Serena has only lost one match since her early exit from the French Open last June. In the meantime, she has won Wimbledon, Olympic gold, the US Open and the WTA Championships.
So can she be stopped here or, for that matter, anywhere else? Can she achieve the calendar Grand Slam and win all four in 2013?
"That’s an incredible goal," she said when she appeared, looking fit and relaxed at her press conference. "It hasn’t been done since the ’80s. I don’t know if I can do it. Maybe someone else can. We’ll see."
It is now becoming accepted on the tour that Serena and Patrick Mouratoglou have more than just a player-coach relationship and, with hindsight, it is easy to trace her change in mood and fortunes to the moment the Frenchman came into her life immediately after she suffered her first-ever opening round loss in a Grand Slam to Virginie Razzano at Roland Garros.
Noticeably more relaxed in her dealings with the media, Mouratoglou also seems to have helped her find an inner calm on court. "I feel really calm, actually," she replied when asked about how she feels when playing at the top of her game. "I feel really calm and really relaxed. I don’t feel like I’m panicking. I don’t feel like I’m doing anything over the top. I think for me, that’s the key."
She talked about still enjoying doubles with her sister and then was at pains to emphasize her feelings for Venus soon after leaving the media room by tweeting, "My sister Venus is the bestest ever, ever, ever."
It seems clear that we will be seeing a happy person walk on court when she opens her assault on the title against Romania’s Edina Gallovits-Hall. More challenging opposition will probably crop up when she meets the 2011 Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova in the quarterfinal and defending champion Viktoria Azarenka in the semifinal, should they all survive the early rounds.
Despite having to pull out of Brisbane with a stiff neck, Maria Sharapova was in an even more ebullient mood when she bounded into conference and offered a bag of her Sugarpova candy to the person asking the best question.
Sharapova obviously demands high standards from the media as well as herself because none of us won the candy but she answered questions willingly enough. Revealing that she is about to join the Twitter world, she spoke about interacting with her fans.
"That’s my New year’s resolution, to be a little more active on Facebook and Twitter," she said. "I was getting a little lazy in the last few years. I’m actually thinking of taking pictures for my fans to be able to see what’s going on in my life a little bit. I think that’s a really nice interaction."
Mentioning that she was supposed to have nine million fans world-wide, she added, laughing, "I don’t quite really believe that. I think Max (Eisenbud, her agent) is probably just pressing the button all the time on all his different computers, on all his devices."
Sharapova, the No. 2 seed, opens against a fellow Russian, Olga Puchkova, and should meet the improving German Angelique Kerber at the quarterfinal stage. China’s Li Na, who preceeded Maria as French Open champion in 2011, is a possible semifinal opponent as well as No. 4 seed Agnieszka Radwanska, who enters Melbourne fresh off back-to-back wins in Auckland and Sydney.
Sharapova could meet Venus, one of 11 Americans in the women’s draw, as early as the third round. Of the others, much interest will be focused on two of the brightest young talents in the game, Sloane Stephens, who has earned herself the 29th seeding spot, and Madison Keys.
Stephens will play the Romanian Fed Cup player Simona Halep in the first round and could meet Kvitova in the third while Keys plays local favorite Casey Dellacqua. The experienced Austrian Tamira Paszek, seeded 30th, is a possible second-round opponent.