Aussie Open Serena's for the taking
Could this be the year Serena Williams cements her place in history with a true Grand Slam?
As the draw was announced for the Australian Open on Thursday night, it's certainly a possibility for a top seed playing some of the best tennis of her career. She has won all four majors, just not in one calendar year. Williams won the French and US Open in 2013 but, at age 31, it would be a good year for a genuine Grand Slam.
Only three women have won all four majors in a calendar year, and the most recent was Steffi Graf in 1988. Maureen Connolly (1953) and Margaret Court (1970) were the other two.
It's summer in Australia, meaning that all the extreme temperatures that prompt a closing roof are going to be the excessively hot ones. It might be a nice bit of escapism for Americans still shivering with the memory of the polar vortex.
All you need to know about this quarter is: Serena Williams. The top seed has been on a roll so far this year, beating Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova en route to a win at Brisbane in her first tournament of the year.
Last season in Australia, Williams lost to Sloane Stephens -- one of her few losses of the year. She wouldn't meet Stephens this year until the final, since they are on opposite sides of the draw.
Williams could meet No. 31 Daniela Hantuchova in the third round, and Australian Samantha Stosur (No. 17) in the fourth. At the bottom of the quarter is No. 7 Sara Errani, who had a difficult season last year when the pressure of being in the top 10 got to her.
For the Americans, this quarter has Madison Keys, and a first-round meeting between Sachia Vickey and Lauren Davis.
Truthfully, this should be all Williams.
The highest seed in this section is No. 4 Li Na. Li won a late December tournament in China, and has had success in Australia and at the Grand Slams. She reached the final at the Australian Open last year and in 2011, and won the French Open in 2011.
Li would meet Venus Williams in the third round, if Williams can get past No. 22 seed Ekaterina Makarova in the first. That's a pretty big task considering that the elder sister has struggled at times in Slams with her Sjogren's Syndrome. Williams (No. 38 in the world) pulled out of a tune-up to the Australian as well.
Petra Kvitova (No. 6) would meet Li in the quarterfinal, but this should easily be Li's to lose.
The third-seeded Sharapova reached the semifinals at Brisbane before losing to Williams. It was a good result considering the end to her season. No matter how she does at the Australian Open this year, it will probably be an improvement over the last months of 2013. Sharapova fired her coach, none other than Jimmy Connors, floated the idea of changing her name to Sugarpova and missed the US Open because of a shoulder injury to end the year.
Sharapova will meet unseeded American Bethanie Mattek-Sands, who has played well since a knee injury ended her year not long after the US Open. It's a difficult match for Mattek-Sands, but certainly one she could win, particularly if Sharapova isn't at her best.
If she can get past Mattek-Sands, Sharapova wouldn't face another formidable foe until No. 11 Simone Halep or No. 8 Jelena Jankovic in the quarterfinal.
Sharapova isn't the most stable seed, but there's no one in her quarter who is an obvious choice to beat her.
This is where all the action is.
Azarenka, the two-time defending champion at this event, has played well at the start of seasons, but last year injuries hampered her later. Azarenka is one of the few women on the tour who has had repeat success against Williams but still doesn't seem to have the edge over her biggest rival on the WTA Tour.
To reach the quarterfinal, she will have to go through Stephens in the fourth round and No. 5 Agnieszka Radwanska in the final eight. Stephens has been playing well, and just hired Roger Federer's former coach Paul Annacone.
Radwanska just lost to Mattek-Sands in a tune-up for the major but has gotten to the quarters of the Australian for the last three years.
If there is going to be a surprise here, it would be that Stephens gets to the semifinals again. If she is healthy, Stephens could push to advance. Otherwise, it's Azarenka's quarter, although a hard one to get out of.
Prediction: Serena Williams, until she gives anyone reason to predict otherwise.
Semifinals: Azarenka over Sharapova, Williams over Li.
Final: Williams over Azarenka, it'll be a three-setter with at least one tiebreak.