January 2007 – Serena Williams fair wobbled into the Australian Open at an unheard-of price of 25/1 to win the title she had won on two previous occasions. The fact was the younger Williams sister had suffered dramatically from personal issues, with the nadir being the death of her sister Yetunde. Serena was out-of-shape, out-of-sorts and out of the seedings. When she lost the first set of her 3rd round match with the Russian Nadia Petrova 1-6, Serena was heading for an embarrassing early exit and some mega work in the gym. But then something clicked inside the champion’s mind, if not body. Her now-legendary will-to-win came to the fore as she came back to defeat 5th seed Petrova, before going on to beat Jelena Jankovic, Shahar Peer and Nicole Vaidisova to reach a final against Maria Sharapova, a repeat of the 2004 Wimbledon final. But surely this would be where Serena’s credible run would come to an end. She had defeated the previous opponents between the ears; surely Maria would not succumb to that. And no, the Siberian was not defeated between the ears; she was simply bludgeoned off the court by Serena, who lost only three games to her younger opponent.
What point am I making? Serena Williams was never as unfit as she was six years ago in Melbourne and yet she still found a way to win through. Now, in January 2013, she has never been fitter. This spells big trouble for the women’s draw. Gone is the uncertainty of last season; there is no blanket finish in this Grand Slam and there will be no blanket finishes for the rest of the calendar year either. Only Victoria Azarenka has a shot at stopping Serena here, and it is a small shot too. Serena owns the Rod Laver Arena, and she will want to right the wrong of her 4th round defeat to Ekaterina Makarova in 2012. Her draw is favourable and she will not even be tested before her semi-final showdown with Vika. The winner of that match wins the tournament and I put Serena at 90-10 favourite. I’m also going out on a limb and saying this is the year we stop talking about the Serena Slam of 2002-2003 when she held all of the Grand Slam trophies for a time. We stop talking about it because she finalises her place in the history books by winning the Grand Slam in a calendar year.
The men’s tournament is slightly more open. Of course, we cannot look beyond Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer for the eventual winner but there is at least a case to be made for any of those three to win it. And this I will try to do now. Federer comes in as fresh as a daisy and focused for once on putting pressure on others, downplaying his chances. He has been keen to point out Murray’s advances in 2012 as well as stating that there is no doubt that Djokovic is now very much the World Number 1. This is a relaxed Federer (has there ever been anything but?), one which will come out swinging freely. If he comes through his customary early-round test in Melbourne, he will advance to his semi-final meeting with Murray. Andy himself has been given a tough draw in my opinion. A quarter-final match-up with Del Potro, followed by a semi showdown with Federer will not be ideal preparation for a potential final with the World Number 1. But then he does appear to have carried his fine Autumn form into 2013 and seems set fair for another impressive year. How fresh he arrives into the final could well decide whether he wins back-to-back slams. Conversely, Djokovic’s easier route to the final could of course count against him. I genuinely do not see him dropping anything more than a single set from his first six matches in Melbourne, including potential matches with Tomas Berdych and David Ferrer (I’m a big fan of the latter, but you would love a semi-final of a Grand Slam against him – play to your best and you win, it’s as simple as that). Djokovic will do well to conserve his energy because he knows that if it is Murray he comes up against in 15 days’ time, he will need every ounce of energy he possesses to make sure he gets by the Brit. He will well remember the titanic struggle with Murray on that New York September night and how the Scot refused to go away in the fifth set when it looked like he had missed his chance. I’m not sure if we will be served up with a classic Grand Slam over the next fortnight in either draw, but one thing I am certain of is if it is to be a rematch of the US Open Final then we are in for a classic Grand Slam final. Again! Oh happy days. My bet? Djokovic to retain and Serena to regain. Enjoy!