By Greg Stutchbury
Serena Williams’ Australian Open preparations included smashing a racquet in frustration, complaining of fatigue and losing to players she had never lost to before, yet she is still the favourite to claim her sixth title at Melbourne Park.
The 33-year-old had a terrible buildup to the season-opening grand slam while playing in the Hopman Cup in Perth, losing to Eugenie Bouchard and Agnieszka Radwanska for the first time.
Her standard of play at the event, essentially an exhibition within a tournament format, was also far below her best.
Pundits, however, are loathe to begin writing about the decline of the 18-times grand slam champion as Father Time catches up with her.
With age comes wisdom. Or craftiness, at least.
And when all else fails, when she really needs to, the American unleashes a cannon of a serve or a blistering forehand that few can handle on the Melbourne hardcourts.
Her biggest challenge, apart from stopping her own game self destructing as it has done in Melbourne from time to time, is likely to come from Maria Sharapova, one of the few players who can go toe-to-toe with the American.
The 27-year-old Russian won her fifth grand slam on the clay at Roland Garros last year and said she was pleased with the mental tougness she had shown in getting out of situations she may have struggled with in previous years.
She also enters the tournament with some momentum having romped to the Brisbane title last week.
While world number three Simona Halep and Canada’s Bouchard are keen to make the step up after reaching grand slam finals last year, twice champion Victoria Azarenka looms as possibly the biggest challenger to Williams and Sharapova.
She slipped down the rankings after a foot injury that began after Melbourne worsened and eventually limited her to nine tournaments in 2014.
The 25-year-old is ranked 41st and has a tricky first-up encounter against American Sloane Stephens, though the tall Belarusian simply loves the blue courts in Melbourne which suit her powerful game and jackhammer forehand.
Azarenka has made at least the quarter-finals in four of the past five years, including back-to-back titles in 2012 and 2013, but she will need a dose of luck and a return to form if she is to go deep in the tournament this year.
She could face world number eight Caroline Wozniacki, who had to withdraw from Sydney this week with a wrist injury, in the second round before a potential quarter-final with Williams.
The winner of that last eight clash has been drawn to face either fourth seed Petra Kvitova or sixth seed Agnieszka Radwanska in the semi-finals.
Kvitova won her second Wimbledon title last year and appears to have shaken off the confidence issues she had after failing to live up to the expectations following her first triumph on the grass of southwest London in 2011.
The Czech finished 2014 ranked fourth and had a strong second half to the year, winning two titles on hard courts in New Haven and Wuhan.
She also won in Sydney on Friday, beating compatriot Karolina Pliskova 7-6 7-6 in a hard-fought final.
The performances of Radwanska will also be heavily scrutinised after she linked up with 18-times grand slam title winner Martina Navratilova.
Navratilova only began working with the 25-year-old at Christmas and, as was evident with Andy Murray and Ivan Lendl, these partnerships take time to evolve.
Even if there is no immediate impact from the coaching move, Radwanska’s all-court game still makes her a threat despite her struggles against the stronger hitters.