MELBOURNE, Australia - Is this year's Australian Open the most wide open Grand Slam in recent memory? With defending champion Li Na vacating her throne via retirement and quality starts from the game's best, an overwhelming favorite at the first Slam of the year is impossible to find.
If there's one thing we learned over the first two weeks of the season, it's that the WTA elite haven't missed a beat. The same women who dominated the last quarter of the 2014 season ruled supreme to start 2015. No.2 Maria Sharapova is full of confidence after a triumphant title run at the Brisbane International to start her season. Sharapova spent her December focused on improving her fitness for the grueling 10-month WTA season and she spoke confidently of her chances in Melbourne.
Said Sharapova: "I think there are a lot of players that have an opportunity to win this tournament, and I'm certainly one of them."
No.3 Simona Halep and No.4 Petra Kvitova also started their seasons with wins. Halep did not drop a set en route to the title at the Shezhen Open, while Kvitova took home the trophy at the Apia International Sydney. Both women are downplaying the pressure in Melbourne. Kvitova has no points to defend, having lost in the first round last year. As for Halep, the wide open field actually helps ease the pressure.
"It's not like I have to be in the semifinals or in the finals," Halep said, referring to her expectations. "Everyone from Top 20 I can say has their own chance to win this title."
Ana Ivanovic picked up where she left last season, when she won the Toray Pan Pacific Open and finished the season at No.5. An Australian Open finalist in 2008, Ivanovic began her season with a strong run to the Brisbane final. "Last year I really felt I made big steps towards winning more matches, beating top players," Ivanovic said. "These kinds of things you sort of have to have in place in order to do well at the big events. I feel like I'm ready for the next step."
Of course, no discussion of any Grand Slam can continue without No.1 Serena Williams. The WTA's ace admitted her pre-Melbourne preparation at the Hopman Cup wasn't ideal, but she's rounding into form on the practice courts. "I feel like I should be doing some things better," Serena said. "But every day I can see something coming through, so there's a little light at the end of the tunnel."
The good news for Serena: The five-time champion has never won the Australian Open with a lead-up tournament title under her belt. With the No.1 WTA ranking on the line - Sharapova, Kvitova, and Halep are hot on her tails - and the quest for Slam No.19 underway, she's as hungry as ever.
"I want it I think more than anyone else here," Serena said. "But that doesn't mean I'm going to get it, so I'll have to fight hard to get it."