Caroline Wozniacki Kim Clijsters of Belgium is congratulated at the net by Caroline Wozniacki of Belgium after their match in the singles final on day six of the WTA Championships at the Khalifa Tennis Complex on October 31, 2010 in Doha, Qatar.

Unveiling the sequel to our ATP preview of the Australian Open, we outline three tiers of WTA contenders in Melbourne, arranged in an inner circle, an outer circle…and an Arctic Circle.  Look no further for a comprehensive point-counterpoint discussion of the memorable fortnight to come.

Inner circleWhether from pedigree, recent form, or both, these five mount the most convincing claims to the Daphne Akhurst Cup.

Wozniacki:  Burying a pedestrian first half beneath a dazzling second half, the world #1 reached the final in six of the eight tournaments that she played after Wimbledon and sailed home with the trophy at all but one of them.  In the aftermath of gaining the top spot, she brushed aside the surrounding controversy to capture the Premier Mandatory title in Beijing and reach the final at the year-end championships.  While the high bounce and modest pace of the Melbourne courts should suit Wozniacki’s playing style, its relaxed atmosphere will complement her perpetually sunny personality.  Opportunity knocks for the Dane at a time when most of the WTA elite struggles with injuries or confidence, and she continues to dominate her peers, suggesting that time rests firmly on her side.

On the other hand:  Carrying the dubious mantle of the #1 ranking, Wozniacki will shoulder increasing pressure as she seeks a maiden Slam; neither Jankovic nor Safina rose to the occasion in the same situation during the last two years.  Halted by Clijsters in the two most important finals of her career, she continues to struggle against fellow former #1s with the sole exception of a victory over Sharapova at the US Open.  Wozniacki also slumped out of Melbourne in dismal fashion against Li Na last year, striking just three winners, while she fell to Cibulkova this week in her Sydney opener.

Clijsters:  The clear favorite in a Serena-less field, Kim has maintained a sterling record during her comeback against everyone else in this inner circle, winning all nine of her meetings with Wozniacki, Venus, Henin, and Sharapova.  As impressive as the Dane in the second half, the Belgian won the two most significant tournaments on the post-Wimbledon calendar, accomplishments that she garnished with a Premier Five title in Cincinnati.  Clijsters also collected the coveted Miami tournament with consecutive wins over Henin and a hobbled Venus, erasing the doubts that arose from a perplexing start to 2010.  Surely aware that a non-US Open major title would greatly boost her legacy, she has hinted at a second, permanent retirement in 2012 and thus may enter Melbourne with elevated urgency.

On the other hand:  Toppled ignominiously by Petrova in last year’s Australian Open, Clijsters looked clueless and rusty as she struggled for rhythm.  Built around consistency and durability, she remains vulnerable to an early, self-inflicted wobble against an inspired upstart.  Although she won both of her hard-court meetings with Henin in 2010, those suspenseful matches hinged upon a pair of third-set tiebreaks and witnessed stark momentum shifts.  Anything and everything could happen if the Belgians clash again in Melbourne.

Venus: In the absence of her little sister, the elder Williams may bring greater intensity to a major that she oddly has never won.  Without Serena in New York, she charged to within a tiebreak of the final and likely the title.  Venus has struggled with knee injuries for much of 2010 but claims to have regained her health and hence her lithe mobility; moreover, she still has the ability to unleash mighty serves on crucial points.  Far more erratic than she once was, she nevertheless can rely upon greater experience than most of her challengers, only one of whom has claimed an equal number of major titles.  Even when she sinks well below her best, Venus usually finds a way to navigate past all but the fiercest and most talented foes.

On the other hand:  The American has played only one tournament since a dispiriting defeat to Pironkova in the Wimbledon quarterfinals, and she did not impress during losses to Zvonareva and Li at a Hong Kong exhibition.  Far from imposing is her history at the Australian Open, which includes a second-round loss to Suarez Navarro and an almost unwatchable debacle against Li last year.  When her serve wanders away, the rest of her game rushes after it, and it’s difficult to imagine her controlling her unruly weapons through seven consecutive matches against progressively sterner opponents.

Henin:  One of only two former champions in the draw, the diminutive Belgian dynamo crafted a memorable fortnight in Melbourne a year ago, when she hurtled within a set of the title before Serena mustered all of her resources to halt her.  Despite concern over the elbow injury that curtailed her 2010 campaign, Henin won all of her singles matches at the Hopman Cup last week without dropping a set.  Since the Australian Open does not rank high among her comeback goals, she will not place as potentially crippling a psychological burden upon herself as she will at Wimbledon.  Still intimidating to most of the WTA, Justine may win some matches on reputation alone, allowing her to settle into the tournament and accumulate confidence.

On the other hand:  After the initial momentum of her comeback subsided, we noticed that Henin often found herself on the wrong side in some of the season’s most thrilling matches, including all of her meetings with Clijsters.  Emotionally frail even before her “first” retirement, she never quite settled into the amplified aggression that she seeks to employ in her comeback.  On a surface less swift than Wimbledon and New York, Justine may find fewer opportunities than she would wish to exploit her unsurpassed talents in the forecourt, while the high bounce does not favor her low contact point.

Sharapova:  Armed with a new coach, new racket, new shoes, and new schedule, the leonine Siberian seeks to replicate her memorable 2008 title run, when the high-bouncing surface proved an ideal venue for her ultra-flat groundstrokes.  Sharapova showed increased commitment this season by entering a WTA event in Auckland rather than her customary exhibition, and her premature exits at the last three majors stemmed principally from draws that aligned her against Henin, Serena, and Wozniacki.  Severely testing her opponents in the first two of those defeats, she held match points against Clijsters in Cincinnati during an uplifting summer.  Like Venus, Sharapova brings vast experience and competitive resilience to each of her matches, battling until the final point.

On the other hand:  A first-round loser to Kirilenko at last year’s Australian Open, the Russian found the medium-speed hard courts somewhat too slow for a game that has eroded in consistency.  She has reached only one Slam quarterfinal since her 2008 title run here, and her injury has drained away some of her confidence.  In Auckland, Sharapova fell to world #88 Greta Arn after a generally indifferent week, so she carries little momentum to Melbourne.  Also like Venus, she might struggle to control her massive arsenal throughout an entire fortnight against a diverse range of opponents.

Outer circleWhile they may need a few of the stars to align in their favor, these players possess more than sufficient talent to ambush the favorites.

Zvonareva:  Seeking a third consecutive Slam final, the world #2 stunned Clijsters and Wozniacki at the last two majors of 2010 before falling to the defending champion at both of them.  Her versatile, tactically subtle style should find fluent expression on the medium-speed surface of Rod Laver Arena, where her rallying skills will amply compensate for her lack of an overpowering serve.  Even before her 2010 breakthrough, Vera achieved her strongest Slam performance with a semifinal at the 2009 Australian Open.  Not quite bulletproof psychologically, she finally has learned how to channel her perfectionist streak and no longer permits momentary lapses to fluster her.  In a Hong Kong exhibition last week, she thrashed leading contenders Venus and Wozniacki in an imposing statement of intent.

On the other hand:  In both of her Slam finals, Zvonareva’s latent negativity resurfaced to hamper her performance.  Last year at the Australian Open, she dissolved against Azarenka in predictably tearful fashion after holding a commanding lead.  After the Russian played so far above expectations in 2010, one expects a slight relapse early in 2011 as expectations mount.  Despite her victories over Clijsters and Wozniacki at majors, she has not yet proven herself against the other members of the inner circle.

Stosur:  Similar to Zvonareva, she delivered distinctly the best performance of her career last year, reaching the Roland Garros final with victories over Henin and Serena.  The best server in the WTA outside the Williams sisters, Stosur will find her kick serve ideally suited to the high-bouncing surface in Melbourne.  She extended her success from clay to hard courts during the second half of 2010, when she pushed Clijsters to three sets in the US Open quarterfinal and reached the semifinal in Doha before falling to the Belgian again.  An asymmetrical baseliner who aims to hit as many forehands as possible, Stosur will have more time to run around her backhand on the medium-speed surface than she did in New York.

On the other hand:  Carrying the mantle of home hope once held by Hewitt, the understated Aussie bears the pressure of her nation’s thirst for a Slam champion at its own major.  Since Stosur relies more heavily on a single shot (her serve) than most contenders, she has a mechanical, relatively one-dimensional style and thus becomes a vulnerable target for aggressive baseliners if her serve falters.  Shaky in Brisbane last week, the world #6 mustered just six games against compatriot Jarmila Groth; Sydney started much more promisingly for her, however.

Ivanovic:  Bursting back into relevance by winning 13 of her last 15 matches in 2010, the Serb romped through a sprightly start to 2011 at the Hopman Cup despite another loss to Henin.  The 2008 runner-up in Melbourne found her heavy forehand ideally suited to the surface there, and the high bounce lifts an opponent’s groundstrokes into her high strike zone.  Now winning the close matches that she regularly lost during her slump, Ivanovic has largely curbed her wayward ball toss and started to swing through her backhand more confidently, thereby turning her forehand into an even more dangerous weapon.  Always at home in Australia, she enjoys fervent crowd support there that will boost her confidence in tense situations.

On the other hand:  Believing that she must develop more consistency before contending for majors again, Ivanovic has set realistic expectations for herself that prioritize reaching the second week at each Slam this season.  The Serb will have a relatively low seed in the Melbourne draw, so she could face one of the leading contenders as early as the third round.  Early in a partnership with Azarenka guru Antonio van Grichen, she may need more time to incorporate his contributions to her game.  Withdrawing from the Hopman Cup with an abdominal strain, she heads to Melbourne with a bit less court time than she would have preferred.

Kuznetsova:  One of the finest natural athletes in the WTA, Sveta already has captured two of the four jewels in the sport’s crown.  Her 2009 title run at Roland Garros followed a memorable quarterfinal against Serena at the Australian Open that season, during which she had nearly toppled the eventual champion before a heat delay allowed the American to regroup.  Parallel to Stosur and Ivanovic, her forehand-centric groundstroke game theoretically should prosper on this surface more than at the US Open.  Most lethal when least trumpeted, Kuznetsova has far too much talent to meander low in the top 30 for much longer and surely will explode soon.  Or will she?

On the other hand:  Often slow to find her strongest tennis early in the season, the two-time major champion never has reached a semifinal in Melbourne and fell to the fallible Petrova last year.  In 2010, she suffered one of her worst seasons since capturing the 2004 US Open, winning just one small title in San Diego and falling before the quarterfinals at every Slam and Premier Mandatory tournaments.  Having absorbed hard-court losses last year to players like Kulikova, Suarez Navarro, Vinci, and Cibulkova (twice), her confidence surely sank further after a deflating loss to Peng in Auckland.

Arctic CircleThree majors ago, Schiavone reminded the tennis world that not even the astonishing should astonish.  Meet the potential Schiavones of this year’s Australian Open.

Schiavone:  Once a Slam champion, always a Slam champion and a threat to win another major.  Fearless in the Roland Garros final, the Italian veteran followed Horace’s advice and carped the diem more boldly than most of her rivals.  After suffering a predictable hangover at Wimbledon, Schiavone charged to the quarterfinals of the US Open, where she tormented Venus through two tight sets before reluctantly succumbing.  Her inspired forecourt skills continue to frustrate the baseline-bound, rhythm-reliant younger generation of the WTA.

On the other hand:  Visibly weary towards the end of 2010, Schiavone withdrew from the Hopman Cup with a thigh injury and lost her Sydney opener to Kleybanova.   Although she has scored some success against Wozniacki, she has won just one of forty meetings against Clijsters, Henin, Venus, Sharapova, and Zvonareva.  Since she probably would need to defeat at least two of those opponents, one doubts that lightning can strike twice.

Jankovic:  A finalist at the 2008 US Open, the top-ranked Serb reached the semifinals in Melbourne that year and the semifinals at Roland Garros last year.  Among the other accomplishments in Jankovic’s sparkling first half were the Indian Wells title, where she comfortably conquered Wozniacki, and consecutive victories over the Williams sisters in Rome.  She always open the season relatively fresh before her workaholic schedule exerts its toll.  Changing her coach over the offseason, Jankovic appears to have returned to the counterpunching tactics that brought her to the top after abandoning an ill-fated attempt to trade movement for power.

On the other hand:  Throughout the second half of 2010, Jankovic struggled to win any matches at all as she ceaselessly complained of injuries, illness, or most often both.  At Sydney, this trend continued with a three-set loss to Rezai during which she could not capitalize upon the Frenchwoman’s erratic serving.  In contrast to Schiavone, furthermore, she crumbled at Roland Garros when opportunity knocked loudly for her to snatch a maiden major from her fellow, similarly Slam-less semifinalists.  The Serb’s last two appearances in Melbourne ended with desultory losses to Bartoli and Alona Bondarenko.

Li:  A surprise semifinalist in Melbourne last year, the Chinese star stunned Wozniacki and Venus consecutively before stretching Serena into two tiebreaks.  Unleashing her crisp, sometimes Davydenko-esque two-hander without mercy, Li demonstrated her mental tenacity by outlasting the elder Williams in a quarterfinal as tense as it was ragged.  She later reached the Wimbledon quarterfinals and the semifinal at the Premier Mandatory event in Beijing, showcasing her ability to deliver her best tennis on the most important occasions.  Deep in a major, Li surely wouldn’t wilt under pressure like so many of her contemporaries.

On the other hand:  Notoriously erratic, the 2010 semifinalist dropped three straight matches last season to Tatiana Malek, Elena Baltacha, and Timea Bacsinszky, while other nemeses included Dulgheru and Zakopalova.   Although we don’t doubt that she can stay mentally firm throughout the fortnight, she may struggle to reproduce the pinpoint timing on her groundstrokes through seven matches.  Brilliant at battling power with power, Li often falters against opponents who can disrupt her rhythm or offer her little pace.

Azarenka:  At the 2009 Australian Open, she seized the initiative from Serena before heat illness overtook her; at the 2010 Australian Open, she thrust Serena to the edge of the precipice before Serena overtook her.  Azarenka typically has performed at her highest level early in the season and especially in Melbourne, when she remains physically and psychologically fresh.  A bristling hybrid of power and movement, she already possesses all of the tools necessary to win a first major despite never having reached a semifinal.  Already endowed with a champion’s mentality, the Belarussian could break through all at once just as her ancestor Sharapova did at Wimbledon in 2004.

On the other hand:  Azarenka’s electrifying passion oscillates between an asset and a liability, undercutting her at untimely moments.  While the unrelenting Australian heat could trouble her, a more serious concern stems from the recurrent hamstring injury that resulted in no fewer than seven retirements last year.  Still searching for a more imposing serve, she toiled through her Sydney opener and must win more efficiently at Melbourne in order to conserve her energy for the crucial rounds.

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We return in two days with an article on potential ambush artists from both the ATP and WTA.  Who hopes to spring a surprise at the first major of 2011?

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