Melbourne - Serena Williams is back in Melbourne as hot
favourite to repeat her 2017 Australian Open win and claim a record-equalling
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
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
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
Bookmakers in Australia have installed Williams as a
short-priced favourite for the title with her US Open conqueror Osaka - the
first Japanese player to win a Grand Slam - next in the betting.
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 semi-finals 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 number four's status as second favourite 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 number one, but ended it
in October with the bombshell announcement that she had been diagnosed with
The 28-year-old Dane insists she can manage the debilitating
auto-immune 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 two.
World number one Simona Halep of Romania comes into the
tournament under a fitness cloud after a nagging back injury curtailed her 2018
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
Two-time major champion and former number one 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 number 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.