Ser­ena ab­sence gives chance for a new su­per­star

The Star Early Edition - - SPORT -

SIN­GA­PORE: Women’s ten­nis starts its 2018 cam­paign with the usual early fo­cus on the Aus­tralian Open and a huge ques­tion mark over who can fill the yawn­ing gap left by the ab­sence of Ser­ena Wil­liams.

No one was able to get any­where close last year, not just in terms of con­sis­tently win­ning the big­gest tour­na­ments but also when it comes to charisma.

Wil­liams left Mel­bourne a year ago with a 23rd grand slam ti­tle un­der her belt, but soon hung up her racket for the re­main­der of 2017 upon dis­cov­er­ing she was eight weeks preg­nant at the time of her tri­umph.

Her forced hia­tus will ex­tend past this year’s tour­na­ment after she de­cided last week that she was not fully match-ready, giv­ing the chas­ing pack more op­por­tu­ni­ties to stamp their author­ity on the women’s game.

Boris Becker, who knows a bit about both win­ning grand slams and star ap­peal, be­lieves the land­scape at the top of the women’s game is just too con­fused at the mo­ment.

“I think there is a real op­por­tu­nity for the next su­per­star. It’s not clear cut,” he told Reuters.

“(Si­mona) Halep is num­ber one at the mo­ment, but we have four or five different girls. It’s just that there is no one dom­i­nat­ing, but it’s up to them.

“I could men­tion 10 names who could win the Aus­tralian Open, that’s good and that’s bad. I think the sport needs a strong ri­valry be­cause that’s good for fans. But the women’s game doesn’t have that at the mo­ment.”

The re­main­ing 2017 ma­jors were shared by three ris­ing stars of the game, with Lat­vian teen Je­lena Ostapenko storm­ing to the French Open ti­tle, Gar­bine Mugu­ruza win­ning Wim­ble­don and Sloane Stephens re­turn­ing from in­jury to lift the US Open.

The world rankings saw three new names as­cend to the top last sea­son with big-serv­ing Czech Karolina Pliskova’s twom­onth reign ended by Spain’s Mugu­ruza in Septem­ber, be­fore Ro­ma­nia’s Halep took over to end the year in pole po­si­tion.

How­ever, per­haps the most sig­nif­i­cant in­di­ca­tor of who could shine bright­est in 2018 came in Oc­to­ber when Caro­line Woz­ni­acki bat­tled to a maiden WTA Finals ti­tle, dis­play­ing a new brand of ruth­less ten­nis that sug­gested a first grand slam was im­mi­nent.

The Dane had lost six straight finals be­fore win­ning the Pan Pa­cific Open in Tokyo a month ear­lier and she car­ried that mo­men­tum to Sin­ga­pore be­fore start­ing the sea­son with a solid show­ing in Auck­land to move up to sec­ond in the world rankings.

“For me, the big­gest thing was when I lost the first six finals of the year, I didn’t let it re­ally put me down,” the 27-year-old said after her Sin­ga­pore tri­umph.

“I looked at the pos­i­tive and said I put my­self in con­tention al­most ev­ery week and even­tu­ally it will have to turn.”

As Wil­liams sits out a fourth straight grand slam, Halep and Pliskova will join Woz­ni­acki in a quest for a ma­jor break­through in Aus­tralia.

Halep is prob­a­bly the best placed to claim the first grand slam of the sea­son, the Ro­ma­nian ce­ment­ing her num­ber one sta­tus with a Shen­zhen Open tri­umph.

Maria Shara­pova, how­ever, is the one player who can match Wil­liams’ in­ten­sity and sin­gle-minded de­sire for suc­cess, not to men­tion her sta­tus as a draw­card.

The Rus­sian is lurk­ing in the shad­ows as a ma­jor con­tender as she con­tin­ues to re­build her ca­reer.

One for­mer cham­pion who will not be at Mel­bourne Park is Vic­to­ria Azarenka, whose pro­tracted cus­tody bat­tle for her young son has pre­vented the Be­laru­sian from play­ing since Wim­ble­don last July.

With Mugu­ruza an in­jury doubt after with­draw­ing from her first two events of the year, Ukrainian Elina Svi­tolina, im­prov­ing French­woman Caro­line Gar­cia and Ju­lia Gorges of Ger­many will also at­tract back­ing after solid early form. Becker, though, has his eye on an­other of his com­pa­tri­ots, the 2016 Mel­bourne Park cham­pion An­gelique Ker­ber. – Reuters

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