Serena Williams will come charging back in the 2017 majors, and the American will also habour ambitions of regaining that number one spot. Serena’s outstanding collection of 22 majors is matched only by Steffi Graf in the Open Era. One more Grand Slam, and she will be in sole ownership of that record. Her next opportunity will come at the 2017 Australian Open, where Kerber is the defending champion.
Will it be the German again? Or will Serena regain the title? Or can any of the other ladies rise above the top two players in the world, and win the Australian Open?
We present our top five contenders for the women’s singles title, starting with the least likely winner:
5. DOMINIKA CIBULKOVA
Dominika Cibulkova isn’t necessarily the first name that pops into your head when considering potential Grand Slam champions, but the dangerous Slovakian is coming off a successful campaign which ended with a superb victory at the WTA Finals, and a career-high world number five ranking.
There are not many better sights on the WTA Tour than Dominika Cibulkova in full flow, like she was in the final of the season-ending showpiece in Singapore- shooting through Angelique Kerber’s famed defence with her ultra-aggressive stroke-making.
That was the perfect performance- the perfect ending to a fine season which also yielded titles in Katowice, Eastbourne and Linz.
Cibulkova is not a stranger to a deep run at the Australian Open. She was a beaten finalist in 2014, knocking out Maria Sharapova, Simona Halep and Agnieszka Radwanska in consecutive matches before eventually falling to Li Na. That is not a bad score card.
When she gets it all going, she can be an absolutely nightmare for her opponents. It’s been a quiet start to the season for Cibulkova, with 2-2 record through Brisbane and Sydney, but with her dynamic hitting and movement, she retains a real chance in Melbourne, particularly if the draw opens up.
4. KAROLINA PLISKOVA
The fact that Karolina Pliskova has the ability to hit her way through a WTA draw is not under question; the fear, however is that the power-hitting Czech is yet to show that she can deliver on a consistent basis. That is what makes her so difficult to back. Having never previously made it beyond the third round of a major, Pliskova finally broke through with a fabulous run to the US Open final. There, she beat both Williams’ sisters, and dragged Angelique Kerber to a third set before eventually bowing to the German left-hander.
True to form, Pliskova faded away for the rest of the year, prompting further questions on whether she can recreate her Flushing Meadows’ surge more regularly. Pliskova gets on this list on the basis of her US Open exploits, and more importantly, her early season form. With her title rivals still finding their feet in the new year, the Czech was quickly into her stride in Brisbane, dropping just one set as she sauntered to the title.
Following her success, she (predictably) withdrew from the Apia International Sydney. No point in overplaying before a major tournament. There’s early confidence, there’s early momentum, and that puts her in excellent stead ahead of the Australian Open.
3. AGNIESZKA RADWANSKA
Will Agnieszka Radwanska ever win a Grand Slam?
There are many (except Aga’s opponents, of course) who would love to see the silky Pole hoist one of the big ones, but time and over again, Radwanska has fallen victim to one of the power hitters in the sport. Images of Ana Konjuh planting a barrage of winners beyond the helpless Aga at the US Open readily flood the mind.
The Pole enjoyed a consistent 2016- at no point in the calendar year did she drop below the top five- adding three more titles to her cabinet. While she has never been to the Australian Open final, she has made at least the quarter finals in five of the last six years, crossing over to the last four on two occasions.
Radwanska keeps carving out these chances, and she will again be there or thereabouts in Melbourne; something has got to fall her way at some point very soon.
2. ANGELIQUE KERBER
To say Angelique Kerber’s 2016 surge was a bolt from the blue may be a bit of an exaggeration, but she certainly exceeded all expectations, maybe all logic, with her two Grand Slam titles, and her stunning rise to number one in the world.
Kerber had failed to cross the third round in any of the four majors held in the preceding year, which ended with her just inside the top ten. She did win an impressive four titles, but she made zero impressions at the Grand Slams. Make no mistake; her talents have always been known- that athleticism; that wonderful transition game- since she made her first splash in 2011, but she took it to a whole new level in 2016, adding a new layer of mental strength to her arsenal.
Kerber was unspectacular in the first few weeks after her US Open triumph, but she served a timely reminder of her class at the WTA Finals, waltzing through the field (bar an opening match struggle against Cibulkova) before succumbing to the excellent Cibulkova (her again!) in the final.
Kerber is yet to hit her groove in 2017, winning just one match in Brisbane and Sydney combined, but the world number one isn’t getting too worried, insisting that such lackluster form isn’t out of place in the opening few matches of the season. On the evidence of 2016, Angelique Kerber relishes the big stage. The Australian Open provides one of the biggest stages in this sport.
1. SERENA WILLIAMS
When Serena Williams stood on the brink of the calendar Slam in 2015, the thought of the then World Number One losing major matches were almost alien, but then Roberta Vinci happened; then Angelique Kerber; then Garbine Muguruza; then Karolina Pliskova.
Those ‘shock’ losses have become more frequent over the last year, but to anoint any other lady as the favourite for a Grand Slam would be brave in the extreme. Serena Williams is the queen of the big stage.
Serena has set such high standards that a slight dip can evoke talks of a crisis. She had a bad 2016, eh? Well, she won one Grand Slam, reached two finals, and lost a semi-final in the other.
Williams shut down her season after her US Open semi-final loss to Karolina Pliskova, but she made her return from that lengthy absence at the ASB Classic in Auckland. Unsurprisingly, the American looked out of sorts, fumbling past Pauline Parmentier, and tumbling out of the tournament in the second round after a shock defeat to Madison Brengle.
Yes, Williams looked unconvincing, but she has not been the only one in that boat this year. With the exception of very few, Pliskova especially, none of the other big guns has looked overly brilliant. In a level-playing field of indifferent form, Williams remains the woman to beat.