MELBOURNE, Australia - Serena Williams is the one to beat heading into the 2014 Australian Open and the rest of the year. Chasing history, she has the opportunity to win her 18th Grand Slam in Melbourne, joining the likes of Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova. But who among the other players has a shot at breaking through this year and challenging for the top spots in the women's game?
"I think if Serena can play with the same passion and enthusiasm she had in 2013 and stays healthy, she is still obviously the one to beat," said tennis legend and ESPN analyst Evert. "I think the sense of her place in history now is another motivating force - she's won 17 Grand Slams and could equal Martina's and mine in Australia. My big question is who is going to be her contenders."
Topping the list of players to watch is two-time defending Australian Open Champion Victoria Azarenka. The World No.2 is attempting to become the first player since Martina Hingis from 1997 to 1999 to win three titles in a row in Melbourne. She has been in top form in each of her last two years Down Under - notching wins over top players including Maria Sharapova, Kim Clijsters, Li Na and Agnieszka Radwanska en route - and has already proven that she has the talent and mental fortitude to defend her first Grand Slam title.
"This tournament is very special to her," said Evert. "She's won it a couple times and she's had great success and big wins. I think she loves the surface, she likes the speed of the courts, she likes her movement and I think she's going to be very dangerous here."
Another top player to keep an eye on is 2008 Australian Open champion Maria Sharapova, who is looking to win a second title at a Grand Slam for the first time in her career - she has won one each at the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open. With changes in Sharapova's coaching situation - she is now working with Sven Groeneveld - this year might see a breakthrough on that front.
Coming back from injury that sidelined her for the second half of 2013, Sharapova is hoping to regain the form that won her her first four Grand Slams. With a semifinal appearance last week in Brisbane, which featured an extremely tough field, the talent and form that could threaten anyone in the game has already shown up in the new year.
"Sloane is right there along with Victoria and Maria," said Evert. "The great thing about Sloane is that she reached the fourth round or better of all four Grand Slams last year, and she always gets psyched up for Grand Slams and big matches. She has great memories from last year playing at the Australian Open."
In addition, there are many other players are poised for a breakthrough. Former Grand Slam champions Petra Kvitova (2011 Wimbledon), Li Na (2011 French Open) and Ana Ivanovic (2008 French Open) know what it takes to win a Slam, but have yet to back it up with a second. Grand Slam finalists Agnieszka Radwanska (2012 Wimbledon), Caroline Wozniacki (2009 US Open) and Jelena Jankovic (2008 US Open) have come so close to winning Slam titles and are again knocking on the door of the top of the game. Even rising stars Simona Halep, Madison Keys and Eugenie Bouchard are poised to break into the upper tier of the game at any moment.
"I think the beauty of women's tennis right now is that you do have depth," said Evert. "Yes, Serena's set the benchmark of a true professional and there's a little bit of a distance between her and everyone else, but then you've got 10 to 12 players that are really poised to make great strides and step in there to challenge Serena, which I think is great. So, I think it's looking good. You like to see a lot of personalities, you like to see a lot of good tennis players out there, and women's tennis right now is in a very healthy situation in that regard."