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Another Serena-Less “Slam”: Who Will Capitalize at the Australian Open?

For the second consecutive major, Serena Williams will be a no-show.  With the two time defending champion and former world number one still injured, current world number one Caroline Wozniacki should technically be “the” favorite.  While Wozniacki is a certain contender for the crown Down Under, it’s difficult to position her in the number one spot.  With her victories at the U.S. Open and the WTA championships to finish 2010, Kim Clijsters has to be viewed as the outright favorite.  The way the Australian Open draw stacks up, Clijsters has to relish her chances.  Let’s take a look how it breaks down.

Imagine needing to conquer Gisela Dulko in the first round, Dominika Cibulkova in the third round and either Justine Henin or Francesca Schiavone just to get to the quarterfinals.  This is the precise task which probably awaits Wozniacki.  Moreover, in the semifinals, the Dane could clash with either Venus, whom she has never beaten, Victoria Azarenka or Maria Sharapova.  In light of the treacherous road ahead, Wozniacki has her work cut out for her in trying to survive the first week and retain the number one ranking.

Since her 2010 Wimbledon injury, this will be Henin’s first major.  After months of noncompetitive play, Henin performed well at the Hopman Cup.  In Melbourne, a possible third round encounter with Svetlana Kuznetsova will be her first true challenge.  Last year, Henin battled her way to the final after an almost two year sabbatical. Consequently, if the Belgian successfully navigates the first week, she could duplicate her feat of a year ago.

If healthy, Venus should reach the round of 16 with ease.  At that stage, the 2003 Australian Open finalist could be tested, if the draw holds true to form, by the 2008 Australian Open champion, Sharapova. The Russian’s last major was in Melbourne.  Subsequent to shoulder surgery a couple of years ago, Sharapova appears finally at full steam.  That type of encounter could be a shot in the arm for Sharapova and push her back into the top ten.

2010 semifinalist Na Li is hoping to become the first Chinese person to advance to the final of a major.  In Sydney recently, Li defeated Clijsters to bank the title which is undoubtedly a confidence builder.  A third round match-up with Aravane Rezai, a round of 16 possible encounter with Victoria Azarenka may present some issues for Li.  The Chinese woman ousted Venus in the quarterfinals last season and could see the American or Sharapova in that round this year.  Having never battled Henin and with a slim edge in her head to head with Wozniacki, in a semifinal bout with either woman, Li could pull off the upset and become a surprising finalist.

In the bottom half of the draw, Vera Zvonareva, the world number two should sail smoothly into the round of 16.  At that point, Zvonareva will need to guard against fellow Russians Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Maria Kirilenko.  In the quarterfinals for Zvonareva, Aussie Samantha Stosur and 2010 Wimbledon semifinalist Petra Kvitova could be a challenge; especially the latter, who commenced 2011 with a title in Brisbane.

Considering her unforeseen dismissal by Nadia Petrova last year, Clijsters leaves room for doubt.  Still, Clijsters could get the opportunity to avenge that beat down in the round of 16.  Rather than Petrova, Ana Ivanovic would like to be the one to have a crack at stopping Clijsters in the fourth round.

In many respects, Clijsters seems to be holding all the cards.  With only one loss to Jelena Jankovic in eight meetings and a recent win over Alisa Kleybanova in Sydney, it’s tough to conjure up a case against Clijsters not reaching the semifinals.  Moreover, in the U.S. Open final, Clijsters trashed Zvonareva and against Stosur, the Belgian hold a 5-0 record. As such, in a semifinal versus either woman, Clijsters will have the edge.  As a result, if Clijsters stays focused the entire two weeks, she will win her first non U.S. Open major.

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