Wil­liams still the force to reckon with

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - SPORTS -

Ser­ena Wil­liams was eight weeks preg­nant dur­ing her 2017 Aus­tralian Open tri­umph and while she has failed to add to her tally of 23 Grand Slam ti­tles, the Amer­i­can is still re­garded as the dom­i­nant force in women’s tennis on her re­turn to Mel­bourne.

The 37-year-old took a year off after the birth of her daugh­ter Alexis Olympia in Septem­ber of that year, be­fore re­turn­ing to ac­tion last sea­son, when she reached the fi­nals at Wim­ble­don and the US Open.

Her quest for an­other Ma­jor fell at the fi­nal hur­dle on both oc­ca­sions, how­ever, with de­feats to Ger­many’s An­gelique Ker­ber in Lon­don and ris­ing Ja­panese star Naomi Osaka in New York.

The losses left Wil­liams still seek­ing a 24th Grand Slam sin­gles ti­tle to equal Mar­garet Court’s all-time record and she will have an­other tilt at that mile­stone dur­ing this year’s Aus­tralian Open, de­spite en­ter­ing the tour­na­ment ranked 16th in the world.

Chal­lengers

While Wil­liams achieved her vic­tory over sis­ter Venus in the fi­nal two years ago, the chal­lenge this year comes from an ar­ray of play­ers.

Chris Evert has de­scribed try­ing to pick a women’s sin­gles cham­pion in Mel­bourne as a “crap­shoot”, with the last eight Grand Slam ti­tles hav­ing been won by dif­fer­ent play­ers.

World num­ber one Si­mona Halep has had a frac­tured lead-up to the tour­na­ment, with a back in­jury cut­ting short her 2018 sea­son in Septem­ber.

She will be with­out a coach for the first few months of the sea­son after Dar­ren Cahill left for “fam­ily rea­sons” and if that set­back was not enough, she was out­played by un­seeded Aus­tralian Ash­leigh Barty in the se­cond round of the Syd­ney In­ter­na­tional.

The Ro­ma­nian, who lost the 2018 Aus­tralian Open fi­nal to Caro­line Woz­ni­acki, could rue her lack of com­pet­i­tive matches but re­mained up­beat, while say­ing she had low ex­pec­ta­tions for the year’s first Grand Slam.

‘Good level’

“I think I played a good level of tennis . . . No pain at all. I’m happy about that. It’s a great sign,” Halep told re­porters after her loss to Barty.

A se­cond Aus­tralian Open ti­tle for Ker­ber, who de­nied Wil­liams in the 2016 fi­nal, will be a per­fect birth­day gift for the world num­ber two, who turns 31 dur­ing the first week of the tour­na­ment. She looked sharp at the Hop­man Cup, main­tain­ing a 100 per cent sin­gles record.

De­fend­ing cham­pion Woz­ni­acki has been bat­tling rheuma­toid arthri­tis but the 28-year-old Dane will re­main a con­tender, as will 21-year-old Osaka, who jumped into the spot­light with her ruth­less vic­tory over a fired-up Wil­liams in New York.

Be­larus­sian Aryna Sa­balenka has emerged as a dark horse, with many ob­servers, in­clud­ing Amer­i­can great Evert, tip­ping the 20-year-old to make her Grand Slam break­through in 2019.

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