History beck­ons

Ser­ena shoots for Slam history at Aussie Open

Global Times - Weekend - - SPORTS - AFP

Ser­ena Wil­liams is back in Mel­bourne as hot fa­vorite to re­peat her 2017 Aus­tralian Open win and claim a record-equal­ing 24th Grand Slam with ri­vals, in­clud­ing de­fend­ing cham­pion Caro­line Woz­ni­acki, bat­tling health is­sues and poor form. Wil­liams won her 23rd ti­tle and seventh at Mel­bourne Park while eight weeks preg­nant two years ago, and now at­tempts to match Mar­garet Court’s mark of 24 sin­gles ma­jors on the Aus­tralian’s home soil. The 37-year-old en­ters the tour­na­ment ranked 16 in the world but has proved in the past that such num­bers mean lit­tle to her, de­spite fresh mem­o­ries of her melt­down in los­ing the US Open fi­nal to Naomi Osaka in Septem­ber.

Her 2017 tri­umph Down Un­der gave Wil­liams the out­right open era record for sin­gles ma­jors ahead of St­effi Graf’s 22, leav­ing only Court’s tally of 24 ti­tles – 13 of which were earned in the ama­teur era be­fore 1968 – for Wil­liams to chase.

Wil­liams missed her first chance to match Court when los­ing last year’s Wim­ble­don fi­nal to An­gelique Ker­ber, and said ahead of the Aus­tralian Open that she was tak­ing noth­ing for granted.

“It’s some­thing that I clearly want but I have to be able to get there and beat a lot of good play­ers to get it,” the Amer­i­can said.

Re­gard­ing the con­tro­ver­sial fi­nal against Osaka at Flush­ing Mead­ows – when she raged against um­pire Car­los Ramos who im­posed three code vi­o­la­tions, the fi­nal one re­sult­ing in the loss of a game – Wil­liams said she had put it put be­hind her and in­tended to “move on to big­ger and bet­ter things.”

Book­mak­ers in Aus­tralia have in­stalled Wil­liams as a short-priced fa­vorite for the ti­tle with her US

Open con­queror Osaka – the first Ja­panese player to win a Grand Slam – next in the bet­ting.

Osaka shines

The 21-year-old Osaka backed up her US Open win by rid­ing a wave of fa­nat­i­cal home sup­port to reach the fi­nal of the Pan-Pa­cific Open in Tokyo with­out drop­ping a set.

She warmed up for Mel­bourne by mak­ing the semi­fi­nals of the Bris­bane In­ter­na­tional last week, where she blamed a poor at­ti­tude for los­ing to Le­sia Tsurenko.

“I feel like last year I did a lot of that,” she said. “I’m try­ing to change it more, and I think I have.”

While she is the lead­ing light for the next gen­er­a­tion, the world No.4’s sta­tus as se­cond fa­vorite points to a lack of se­ri­ous ri­vals for Wil­liams among the more es­tab­lished play­ers.

Woz­ni­acki, ranked three, started last sea­son by win­ning her first Grand Slam in Mel­bourne and re­turn­ing to world No.1, but ended it in Oc­to­ber with the bomb­shell an­nounce­ment that she had been di­ag­nosed with rheuma­toid arthri­tis.

The 28-year-old Dane in­sists she can man­age the de­bil­i­tat­ing au­toim­mune con­di­tion, which some­times leaves her so ex­hausted she can­not raise her arms above her head.

Woz­ni­acki proved she can still com­pete by win­ning in Bei­jing in Oc­to­ber but whether she can cope with the gru­elling two-week slog of a Grand Slam re­mains to be seen, and she was bun­dled out of the Auck­land Clas­sic last week in Round 2.

Halep cloud

World No.1 Si­mona Halep of Ro­ma­nia comes into the tour­na­ment un­der a fit­ness cloud after a nag­ging back in­jury cur­tailed her 2018 sea­son.

Se­cond-ranked An­gelique Ker­ber has al­ready in­di­cated her pri­or­ity for 2019 will be the French Open, the only Slam to elude the 30-year-old Ger­man in her ca­reer.

Maria Shara­pova has failed to im­press since re­turn­ing from a dop­ing ban and, now ranked 30, is look­ing some way from the player who won five Grand Slams.

Two-time ma­jor cham­pion and for­mer No.1 Gar­bine Mugu­ruza was an­other who had an in­jury-blighted 2018 which saw her drop out of the top 10. But the 20-year-old Aryna Sa­balenka from Be­larus has zoomed up the rank­ings from 73rd at the start of 2018 to No.11 on the back of tour­na­ment wins in New Haven and Wuhan, and is a dark horse to em­u­late Osaka and achieve a maiden Grand Slam.

Photo: VCG

Ser­ena Wil­liams of the US serves dur­ing a prac­tice ses­sion ahead of the Aus­tralian Open in Mel­bourne on Jan­uary 6.

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