Philadelphia, PA – The first Grand Slam event of 2013 will get underway next week and Victoria Azarenka will head to Melbourne in hopes of defending her lone career Grand Slam title at the Australian Open.
"Vika" finally landed in that elusive first-ever Grand Slam final last year in Melbourne, and she made it count with a big victory over former champion and former world No. 1 Maria Sharapova.
With the win, Azarenka landed atop the WTA rankings for the first time in her career and has remained there for just about every week since then.
The Belarusian star also would go on to reach her first-ever U.S. Open final, but it was there she ran into the world's true No. 1 player ... Serena Williams.
Williams has flat out been on fire since a shocking first-round loss at the hands of French journeywoman Virginie Razzano at Roland Garros last May.
Since that stunning "L," the powerful third-ranked American has won the titles at Wimbledon, Stanford, the London Olympics, the U.S. Open, the WTA Championships and in Brisbane, Australia, which occurred just last week in a season-opening tourney. With the exception of a quarterfinal setback in Cincinnati last summer, the 31-year-old Williams has basically captured every tournament she's entered since June.
Can she be stopped?
Serena will head to Melbourne as the favorite, having won everything in sight over the last seven months (five, if you subtract the offseason). And she's already captured an Open Era-record five Aussie Open titles during her brilliant career, or five of the last 10 championships Down Under.
She also just so happens to be a perfect 5-0 when reaching the final at Rod Laver Arena.
Notes: Only Margaret Court (11) and Nancye Wynne Bolton (6) own more overall Aussie crowns than Serena (who's tied with Daphne Akhurst). Court captured a record seven straight at one point (1960-66) back in the Amateur Era.
Serena boasts 15 Grand Slam singles titles overall and currently holds half of the major hardware, following her 2012 Wimbledon and U.S. Open success.
By the way, the high-flying Serena is 11-1 lifetime against Azarenka, including wins in their last nine meetings.
You tell me who's No. 1.
The aforementioned Sharapova will be the second seed at the Aussie fortnight. The Russian superstar is a former Oz Open champ (2008) and a two-time runner- up, including last year's bridesmaid finish to Azarenka. "Shaza" lost to Serena in the 2007 final.
Sharapova, who appeared in a pair of major finals as well as the Olympic gold- medal match last season, completed a career Grand Slam by titling at the French Open last year and is certainly among the favorites at Melbourne Park this time around.
Wimbledon runner-up Agnieszka Radwanska also figures to be a contender. An Aussie quarterfinalist last year, the chess-playing-like Polish world No. 4 is fresh off her title in Auckland last week and has been as steady as anyone on tour over the last couple of years.
Germany is in the house with left-handed star Angelique Kerber, who rocketed up the charts last year after being inspired by a U.S. Open semifinal appearance in 2011. Angie reached her second major semi at Wimbledon, was a quarterfinalist at the French Open last year, and figures to improve upon her third-round showing at the Aussie.
How about seventh-ranked Li Na? The Chinese slugger has been surging for months, this after some struggles following her French Open championship run in 2011.
The 30-year-old Li just won a title in her native land in Shenzhen last week and can beat anybody on tour when her lethal groundstrokes are catching lines.
Note: There were three WTA tournaments last week and all three were won by Top-10 players (Serena, Radwanska and Li), which was a first-time occurrence on the tour.
The women's Top 10 is rounded out by diminutive French Open runner-up Sara Errani; former Wimbledon champ/Czech southpaw Petra Kvitova; former U.S. Open winner Sam Stosur; and former world No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki.
The gritty Italian Errani typically plays her best tennis on clay, but she's no slouch on the hardcourts, either. She reached the Aussie quarters on the Plexicushion in Melbourne and a U.S. Open semi on the DecoTurf in New York last year, so she's definitely in the mix.
Kvitova is an up-and-down player capable of beating anybody on one of her good days. The heavy Aussie crowd favorite Stosur has no shot in Melbourne, where she's a career 14-10, including a first-round loss a year ago, and has failed to reach the quarters in 10 tries. Wozniacki appears to have peaked two years ago on her way to the second of back-to-back year-end-No. 1 finishes. The Danish star reached the Aussie semis in 2011, but exited in the quarters last year.
Serena's fellow former No. 1/big sister Venus will head to Australia (where temperatures reached a broiling 106 degrees in Sydney this week) as a seed (No. 25), but her Grand Slam winning days are in the rear-view mirror. The 32- year-old appeared in her lone Aussie final 10 long years ago (lost to Serena) and hasn't advanced beyond the quarters there ever since. "V" skipped last year's Aussie extravaganza due to injuries and illness.
The last major victory for the seven-time major titlist Venus came at Wimbledon five years ago, and she hasn't appeared in a Grand Slam semi since the 2010 U.S. Open.
Are there any dark horses on the women's side, you ask? No. But maybe keep an eye on rising American Sloane Stephens, a 19-year-old African-American from Florida whose father was the late former NFL Pro Bowl running back John Stephens (who died in a car accident in Louisiana in 2009).
Australia has produced a record 43 women's singles champions in Oz, but an Aussie woman hasn't captured the title there since Chris O'Neil back in 1978. American Betsy Nagelsen came up short in that particular finale.
The U.S., however, owns an Open Era-record 15 women's singles titles at the Aussie Open.
Note: The first Australian Open (or Australasian Championships) was staged in 1905 at Warehouseman's Cricket Ground and also has been played in New Zealand.
If I have to pick a winner, I'm pickin' Serena to hoist the Akhurst Memorial Cup for a sixth time in 11 years.
The newest women's Aussie champ will collect a staggering $2.5 million.