Melbourne - Defending champion Serena
Williams insists she is fighting fit in her bid for a seventh Australian Open
crown despite an injury scare and lack of match practice.
The world number one has barely played
since the US Open in September, when Roberta Vinci shattered her dream of a
calendar-year Grand Slam in a heart-breaking semi-final defeat.
Williams attempted a comeback at this
month's Hopman Cup mixed-team tournament in Perth but retired with soreness in
her left knee, sparking speculation that at 34, she could be past her peak.
But the American 21-time Grand Slam
champion, who also battled knee problems in the latter half of 2015, insists
she is "ready to go" at the Melbourne Park tournament starting
"My body is feeling great now,"
she said this week.
"Obviously I had a hiccup but right
now it is doing much better. I've had a few days of training so it's looking
She added: "I know what I need to do
on and off the court to win big tournaments."
Melbourne Park has been a happy hunting
ground for Williams. She claimed her first Australian Open title way back in
2003, beating elder sister Venus in the final, and reached her sixth last year
when she toppled arch-rival Maria Sharapova.
Williams is not the only player struggling
ahead of the opening Grand Slam of the season, with injuries taking their toll
on many of the leading names.
Despite the new season being barely
underway, the women's top five have all had troubled lead-ups to their first
major test of 2016.
World number two Simona Halep (achilles),
Garbine Muguruza (foot), Agnieszka Radwanska (leg) and Maria Sharapova
(forearm) have all been battling niggling problems that forced them out of
The world numbers six and seven, Petra
Kvitova and Angelique Kerber, joined them in the sick bay suffering
gastrointestinal illness, leaving the Melbourne showpiece unpredictable.
Like Williams, Sharapova, who won her only
Australian Open title in 2008, will enter this year's tournament with little
match practice, although she called her decision not to play last week's
Brisbane International precautionary and declared on Tuesday she was now
It follows her second half of 2015 being
wrecked by injuries, first to her right leg which forced her to miss the US
She then retired from her comeback match at September's Wuhan Open with a
left forearm injury.
Romanian pocket-rocket Halep also withdrew
from Brisbane but was playing this week in Sydney, and knows she has a huge
task ahead to win her maiden Grand Slam, seeded to meet Williams in the final.
"I beat Serena once in my life, so
it's really important for me," said Halep, who has won just one of seven
matches against the American and admitted her Achilles injury was "still
there but now I don't feel pain any more".
"To meet Serena, it means that I have
to do finals. So let's go there in Melbourne to see if I can be there,"
The early-season injury list has opened the
door for two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka, now fully fit
after two troubled seasons, who beat Germany's Kerber to claim the Brisbane
It was the resurgent Belarusian's first
piece of WTA silverware in two-and-a-half years and sent her soaring up the
world rankings to 16, a timely confidence boost.
In Brisbane, Azarenka dropped just 17 games
in four matches and appears to be getting back to her best.
"I'm definitely a lot more
comfortable, a lot more calm, a lot more aware. Happy. Very happy," said
the former world number one.
American Sloane Stephens, who made the
Australian Open semis in 2013, is also in good form, winning the lead-up ASB
Classic in Auckland. But she too then succumbed to illness, withdrawing from
the WTA event in Hobart this week.