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Wednesday, January 11, 2012
Head-spinning WTA scenarios

By Greg Garber
ESPN.com

The old guard -- Serena Williams, Kim Clijsters, Li Na and Francesca Schiavone -- has won nine of the past 12 Grand Slam singles titles. But at the dawn of a new season Down Under, recent history is of little comfort.

Williams has crossed the Federer line of demarcation and finds herself 30 years old -- and injured. Clijsters, who also is ailing, turns 29 in June and is playing her final year before making motherhood a full-time vocation. There would not be many surprised in the tennis community if Schiavone, 31, and Li, who turns 30 in February, never win another major.

So what to expect from the Australian Open, which lands on our collective doorstep Monday like a late (and most welcome) Christmas present?

Tennis analyst Mary Carillo, who divides her time among a dizzying number of networks, including Tennis Channel, is rooting against inertia.

"It feels like we've been watching the same points for the last 10 years," she said. "That's why Schiavone was such a breath of fresh air, why Li Na's winning the French was so much fun. I'm not counting on them to win again; I'm hoping the younger players will start coming through."

This awkward collision is likely to provide the drama for the coming WTA season:

No. 1-ranked Caroline Wozniacki and No. 2 Petra Kvitova are both 21. No. 3 Victoria Azarenka is 22. With only one major title between them -- Kvitova's magnificent run last year at Wimbledon -- can they, like the frustrated, unwashed interlopers that massed in cities across the country, occupy the Slams?

Who will step into this sudden void and assert themselves as Samantha Stosur did at the U.S. Open back in September? Can Maria Sharapova, amazingly still only 24, find a way back to the top four years after winning her last major?

"My eye is on Kvitova," said ESPN tennis analyst Pam Shriver. "She has the weapons and a few extra things the others don't. She's left-handed and has the power. The way she won Wimbledon makes you think she can be a consistent champion."

For Kvitova, a 6-foot hammer from the Czech Republic, the question is not a physical one.

"No," Shriver said. "It's that emotional side, embracing the big position. Does she have the inner fire to want to dominate?"

Carillo wonders, too.

"Petra's still growing into the idea she's a champion," Carillo observed. "She seems to me to be very shy. Now, Steffi Graf was private, but not exactly shy. She wanted to be No. 1 and win majors. Petra's a self-conscious, big girl. Just guessing here, but she seems shy about her carriage.

"That could all change if she starts liking this stuff. I hope she does. There's a lot to like."

If Kvitova is the most likely to break through, Wozniacki -- despite spending 51 of 52 weeks at No. 1 -- seems to remain the least.

"I want to see how her temperament is, dealing with the constant, narrow grind of defending where she is in the rankings," Shriver said. "The Ricardo Sanchez [coaching] influence -- is it real? Maybe. I sense a step back by the dad [Piotr]. I'm still concerned about her ability, her forehand and the bigness of her game to stand up to seven matches.

"Chances are she's going to win one, but I couldn't tell you when."

Carillo sighed when the Dane's name came up.

"I think Wozniacki is going to have to try and play with more aggression and play shorter points in 2012," Carillo said. "She's got to stop waiting for someone to lose the match, squeeze the trigger earlier in points, obviously take better care of her serve.

"I feel badly, because she's a young kid, trying live up to herself. She can win so many matches by playing her brand of ball. But in the majors, she's got to take charge of the important moments."

Petra Kvitova
Very few people can hit a ball as hard as Petra Kvitova, who says unforced errors are "part of my game".

In 1999, just shy of her 18th birthday, Serena Williams took charge of just that kind of moment, defeating Martina Hingis in the final of the U.S. Open. In the intervening 13 years, she has been the dominant woman in the sport. Despite playing only six events last year and falling outside the top 10 for the second time, she still is the acknowledged gatekeeper at the majors.

"Everything on the women's side," said ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert, "depends on Serena's health and where her head's at. With her back in the mix, you've got a lot more interesting scenarios."

Said Carillo, "Yeah, of course she can still win majors."

For the record, Serena finished her season -- which ended in September -- winning 18 of 20 matches and reaching three of four finals. But we all saw what happened in Brisbane and who knows how that injury will manifest itself in Melbourne.

"I'm delighted Kim is back, too," Carillo added. "She seems more determined in her comeback, more than Justine Henin was. But with all those injuries [shoulder, wrist, ankle, stomach muscle], I wonder if Kim could go seven rounds in a major."

That's the beauty of the Australian Open. Just three weeks into the new year, we'll see meaningful matches that set the agenda, spark the talking points for 2012. Clijsters, it should be noted, won an exhibition match over Wozniacki in early December and pronounced herself fit for Australia before she, too, pulled out of Brisbane with a hip injury.

For Clijsters, the defending champion, and Serena -- who won three of the past four in Melbourne before that -- the path is a familiar one. Kvitova and Stosur, a national hero, both navigated those seven matches successfully for the first time last year. For Wozniacki and Azarenka, it has yet to happen.

"I'm excited," Shriver said, "because I have no idea what's going to happen."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.