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Friday, January 11, 2013
Azarenka could face Serena Williams in semis

By Jane McManus

Victoria Azarenka is ready to defend her 2012 Australian Open title when the tournament gets under way in Melbourne on Monday. The Belarusian is the No. 1-ranked player in the world and top seed. If healthy, she should have a clear path to the semifinals.

Although she has points to defend when it comes to her ranking, Azarenka said Thursday that she can't look at it that way when it comes to a Grand Slam event.

"I don't really want to defend anything -- I'm here to win another title, that's how I look at it," she said on a conference call.

The Australian Open was Azarenka's first Grand Slam title in a season over which she established herself as one of the most formidable players on the women's tour. She reached the 2012 U.S. Open final and forced a third set in one of the year's best matches before Serena Williams won the title.

First quarter: Tailor-made for top seed

Azarenka is in the top quarter of the draw, and there don't appear to be many challengers who could disrupt her path to the semifinal if she is healthy. But health has been an issue. On Jan. 4 she withdrew from a semifinal match against Williams in Brisbane because of a foot injury. Reports cited a pedicure-related problem.

"[My foot is] feeling much better the last couple of days," Azarenka said. "The scary part is in the past, as it happened in Brisbane. I'm really glad I can practice full time right now."

Azarenka meets No. 31 Urszula Radwanska in the third round, the younger sister of No. 4 Urszula Radwanska. Caroline Wozniacki is the No. 10 seed after being the top seed last year, and meets unseeded Sabine Lisicki, which is an interesting first-round match. Azarenka could face Wozniacki or No. 7 Sara Errani in the quarterfinal.

If the foot is healed and Azarenka is playing her best, this is a favorable draw. Now if she just didn't have to worry about -- who else? -- Williams.

Second quarter: Serena and Sloane

Williams won the most recent Grand Slam event in New York, and has been tough to beat during her recent resurgence. The epic U.S. Open final with Azarenka could see a rematch in a semifinal in Australia, with both women in the top half of the bracket.

Although Williams, seeded third, is the easy favorite to the quarterfinal, there are a few young players in her segment of the draw.

Sloane Stephens is the 29th seed at the Australian Open. She can credit her seeding to reaching the third round of the U.S. Open, when she lost to Ana Ivanovic.

Unseeded American Melanie Oudin, who was ranked as high as No. 31 in August 2010, will meet British up-and-comer Laura Robson, also unseeded, in the first round. The winner could meet No. 8 Petra Kvitova, the 2011 Wimbledon champ, in the third round.

None of those women has had much luck against Williams, who has realized her love of tennis again after health problems in 2011.

Third quarter: The wide-open range

This is the quarter in which a dark horse could leap into the quarters. Li Na, the No. 6 seed and an excellent hard-court player, would appear to be a favorite. However, in the fourth round, Na could face No. 9 Samantha Stosur, whom she has never beaten in six tries.

That leaves a few other possibilities. No. 13 Ivanovic reached a U.S. Open quarterfinal and finished No. 13 in the world -- her highest ranking since 2008 -- when she won the French Open and ended the year No. 5. Ivanovic could face former ranked player Daniela Hantuchova in the second round, but has won five of the seven matches they have played.

Ivanovic probably would have a more difficult time against Agnieszka Radwanska, whom she could face in the fourth round. She has lost her past four matches against the Polish player.

Radwanska or Stosur appear likely to emerge, but this quarter could yield some intrigue.

Fourth quarter: A few challenges for Sharapova

As the No. 2 seed, Maria Sharapova has a few tricky matches if she hopes to reach the semifinal. First up, she could meet No. 25 Venus Williams in the third round. If this were the Venus of old, Sharapova would have to be more wary. But Williams' autoimmune condition can dramatically impact her energy level on any given day. Putting together the string of good matches needed to disrupt Sharapova is asking a lot.

If Sharapova emerges, No. 15 Dominika Cibulkova, an inconsistent but strong opponent, could be waiting for her in the fourth round. Cibulkova has won two of five matchups against Sharapova, but they have never met on hard courts.

The best news for Sharapova could be that if she gets through those matches, she is a clear favorite in her half of the draw. And with Azarenka and Serena Williams on course to meet in the other semifinal, Sharapova could watch from a shady spot as they wear each other down heading into the championship.

And in the Australian summer, that would be the luck of the draw.