Ser­ena-less women’s field still tough

San Francisco Chronicle - - SPORTS -

MEL­BOURNE, Aus­tralia — With­out de­fend­ing cham­pion Ser­ena Wil­liams in the draw at the Australian Open, there’s cer­tainly an en­hanced op­por­tu­nity for an­other player to emerge as a first-time Grand Slam cham­pion.

Sloane Stephens (at the U.S. Open) and Je­lena Ostapenko (French Open) did it last year.

Just don’t de­scribe the first Grand Slam of the year as “more open” than usual.

“When­ever I get asked that ques­tion, it al­ways comes across in re­ally kind of an al­most neg­a­tive way in­stead of ac­knowl­edg­ing how many great play­ers we have,” Jo­hanna Konta, who reached the semi­fi­nals of Wim­ble­don last year, said Satur­day. “The depth in women’s ten­nis, I re­ally do be­lieve in the last few years, has got­ten so strong. There’s no straight sail­ing to the quar­ters or semis. It doesn’t ex­ist.”

Stephens agrees the Australian Open field is still ex­tremely tough, even with­out Wil­liams, the 23-time ma­jor winner. Wil­liams with­drew from the tour­na­ment to re­cover from health is­sues af­ter a com­pli­cated child­birth in Septem­ber.

“There’s a lot of great play­ers,” Stephens said. “It’s up for grabs.”

A new face will be hold­ing the tro­phy at Mel­bourne Park in two weeks. The No. 1 rank­ing changed seven times in 2017, with five women hold­ing top spot — three for the first time.

Top-ranked Si­mona Halep is look­ing to win her first ma­jor af­ter twice fin­ish­ing run­nerup. She won the sea­sonopen­ing Shen­zhen Open in China, but has mixed results at Mel­bourne Park, los­ing in the first round in 2016 and 2017.

“I don’t feel pres­sure,” Halep said. “I feel OK. I feel fit. I feel ready to start. I have one more goal: to win a Grand Slam.”

Stephens made a stel­lar run to the U.S. Open ti­tle af­ter miss­ing sev­eral months with an in­jured left foot. She’s strug­gled to ad­just to the sud­den star­dom that’s come with be­ing a Grand Slam cham­pion — she hasn’t won a match since Septem­ber — but be­lieves she can find her game again in Mel­bourne.

“I think it’s al­ways a tough tran­si­tion when you go from not play­ing ten­nis for 11 months to win­ning a Grand Slam,” she said. “I like to just stay in my own lit­tle bub­ble and do my own thing . ... It’s kind of been what I’m try­ing to do.”

There are plenty of other con­tenders. Ostapenko, 20, rock­eted up the rank­ings af­ter her stun­ning win at the French Open. Venus Wil­liams is a threat at 37 years old af­ter fin­ish­ing run­ner-up to her sis­ter last year. An­gelique Kerber, the 2016 Australian Open winner, won the Syd­ney In­ter­na­tional ti­tle Satur­day.

Gar­biñe Mugu­ruza is the reign­ing Wim­ble­don cham­pion, though her health has been in ques­tion at the start of the year. Caro­line Woz­ni­acki had a ca­reer-reviving 2017 sea­son and could re­turn to the No. 1 rank­ing for the first time in six years with a strong show­ing in Mel­bourne.

Maria Shara­pova, the 2008 winner, re­turns af­ter miss­ing last year’s Australian Open be­cause of a drug sus­pen­sion.

And then there’s Elina Svi­tolina, who earned her 10th tour ti­tle at the Bris­bane In­ter­na­tional on Jan. 6. She has a shot at No. 1 dur­ing the Australian Open.

Men’s out­look

No­vak Djokovic is back from six months off the tour with a re­mod­eled ser­vice mo­tion partly in­spired by An­dre Agassi and a grow­ing con­fi­dence he can get his sore right el­bow through the Australian Open.

No man has more Australian Open ti­tles than Djokovic’s six. He won five of the six con­tested from 2011 to 2016, though he made a sec­ond-round exit last year.

The 12-time ma­jor winner who is seeded 14th is in the same quar­ter as No. 4 Alexan­der Zverev, No. 5 Do­minic Thiem and 2014 cham­pion Stan Wawrinka, who con­firmed Satur­day he’d re­turn at Mel­bourne Park from his six-month lay­off fol­low­ing surgery on his left knee.

They’re all in the same half of the draw as de­fend­ing cham­pion Roger Fed­erer, who last year re­turned from an in­jury to beat Rafael Nadal in the Australian Open fi­nal. Fed­erer also won Wim­ble­don for his 19th ma­jor and fin­ished the year ranked No. 2 be­hind Nadal, who won the French and U.S. Open ti­tles.

That is giv­ing Djokovic some hope.

“I mean, Roger and Rafa’s year last year has shown age is just a num­ber, es­pe­cially in Roger’s case,” Djokovic said. “I mean, he’s a great ex­am­ple of some­one that man­ages to take care of him­self, knows how to pre­pare well and peak at the right time.”

Djokovic said his el­bow wasn’t 100 per­cent re­ha­bil­i­tated, but he was con­vinced by med­i­cal experts that he wouldn’t do any fur­ther dam­age by play­ing in Aus­tralia.

In­juries to lead­ing play­ers have been a fo­cus of at­ten­tion in Aus­tralia. Nadal is re­turn­ing from a lin­ger­ing right knee prob­lem and five-time fi­nal­ist Andy Mur­ray (hip surgery) and Kei Nishikori (wrist in­jury) have al­ready with­drawn.

In re­cent months, mean­while, ATP Fi­nals winner Grigor Dim­itrov and Zverev have moved up to No. 3 and No. 4 in the rank­ings, re­spec­tively, and are grow­ing in con­fi­dence that they’re on the cusp of Grand Slam break­throughs.

Nadal pulled out of the ATP Fi­nals and skipped warm-up tour­na­ments be­fore the Australian Open.

“Is the first time I am here with­out play­ing of­fi­cial match,” Nadal said. “But I feel good. I re­ally hope to be ready. I feel my­self more or less play­ing well.”

Ng Han Guan / As­so­ci­ated Press

No­vak Djokovic (right) is com­ing back from in­jury and has en­listed An­dre Agassi (left) as a coach.

Julio Cortez / As­so­ci­ated Press 2017

Sloane Stephens, who won her first ma­jor ti­tle at U.S. Open, is a top con­tender in Mel­bourne.

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