It's still all about Serena at Melbourne Park
By Nick Mulvenney
SYDNEY (Reuters) - For the last few years the main question regarding the women's draw at the Australian Open has been who or what can prevent Serena Williams from adding to her impressive collection of Melbourne Park titles.
The answer for most of that time has been injury and, until proved otherwise, most deem it wise to continue working on the assumption that, even if not fully fit, Williams remains more than a match for any player on the women's circuit.
So, although the 35-year-old is seeded second, has played two matches in the last four months -- losing one -- and has drawn a tricky assignment in Belinda Bencic in round one, she is still favourite to secure her seventh Australian Open crown.
Success would mean a 23rd grand slam singles title for the American, allowing Williams to pull clear of German Steffi Graf as the most decorated women's singles player in the professional era.
Williams lost the number one ranking when she was beaten by Karolina Pliskova in the U.S. Open semi-finals last September and, wrestling with a shoulder problem, did not play again until last week's Auckland Classic.
The rankings beneficiary was German Angelique Kerber, who also took away her Australian Open crown with a brilliant performance in last year's final.
In the absence of 2008 champion Maria Sharapova, who is serving out the remainder of a doping ban, and twice winner Victoria Azarenka, who has just had a baby, top seed Kerber again looks like being the most likely to threaten Williams's dominance.
The 28-year-old reached the final of three of the four grand slams last year, adding a second grand slam title when she beat Pliskova to win the U.S. Open, and a second Melbourne crown would move her further away from the pack.
While her warm-up performances have been unimpressive, Kerber could have a reasonably easy ride in the opening round against 61st-ranked Ukrainian Lesia Tsurenko, who withdrew from the Hobart International with a viral illness on Friday.
Third seed Agnieszka Radwanska has little grand slam pedigree beyond a single appearance in the Wimbledon final and will have to pick herself up after a humbling experience in Friday's Sydney International final.
The 27-year-old Pole was quite simply blown off the court by Britain's world number 10 Johanna Konta, who went on a fairytale run to the Melbourne semi-finals last year and looks a reasonable bet to go deep into the tournament this year.
Spain's seventh seed Garbine Muguruza, who also owns a grand slam crown after her French Open triumph last year, will open her account against 109th-ranked New Zealander Marina Erakovic.
Even if she has never been past the fourth round in Melbourne, the 23-year-old Muguruza feels the year's first grand slam is a little more open this year.
"It is a little bit more equal than last year," she told reporters in Melbourne on Thursday.
"There are a lot of girls that can hold the trophy (so) it is going to be a big battle to see who is the best in these two weeks."
Simona Halep, Pliskova and WTA Tour finals champion Dominika Cibulkova, who lost to Li Na in the 2014 final, are other top 10 seeds who might fancy their chances of picking up a first grand slam crown.
Local hopes still rest largely on the tortured shoulders of Sam Stosur, who beat Williams to win the 2011 U.S. Open but has not been past the third round of her home grand slam since 2010.
(Editing by Toby Davis)